When you’re asking taxpayers for permission to spend a lot of their money, you’d better have made a really strong case for it.
In the Niskayuna school district, where voters are going to the polls today to approve $80 million in new debt for repairs, renovations and upgrades to district facilities, the district simply hasn’t done $80 million worth of convincing.
Voters should vote no on the two propositions, and then call on the district to come up with a more detailed, more realistic and more financially reasonable project.
Today’s vote is actually two projects – one for about $62.2 million that would cover the lion’s share of the proposed construction, including renovations and additions to various school buildings, needed roof and HVAC replacement and repairs, and a new high school track
The second one, for about $16.8 million, focuses on improvements and expansion to athletic facilities, including new and improved sports fields.
More details about the improvements will be provided once the money is approved.
The difference between the first proposition and second proposition from a funding standpoint is that debt for the first referendum will replace existing district debt.
When government bodies pay off debt and replace it with new debt, as Niskayuna is proposing, they argue that this will result in no impact on taxpayers.
That’s budgetary sleight of hand.
If the district doesn’t take on new debt, taxpayers would save money because they would no longer be paying off the old debt. Replacing old debt with new debt doesn’t result in a tax hike because the new debt just continues payments of the old debt.
But the district also isn’t using the opportunity to retire old debt to lower taxes either.
The second proposition, which won’t go through unless the first proposition passes (regardless of the vote), will force the district to raise taxes, by about $28 for a property assessed at $100,000.
The district also didn’t make a convincing case as to why it had to hold the referendum in February, when many older taxpayers are spending the winter in warmer climates and when poor weather could keep many voters, particularly older voters, away.
Today’s forecast calls for 2-4 inches of snow.
There’s also the uncertainty of state aid for the district, particularly with the state’s financial problems relating to the covid crisis.
The picture will become more clear in the spring, after state legislators pass a new state budget, when financial aid from the federal government is known, and when we might have a better handle on how long to expect the covid crisis to drag on.
Waiting until May for a vote – when people are used to voting on school budgets, when more residents are in town, when inclement weather isn’t likely to discourage voting, and when the state and local financial picture might have more clarity – would be a safer option for taxpayers.
We all want to see our schools have the best that they can have.
And district officials could make a strong case for the urgent needs in this proposal, like structural repairs to buildings and replacement of old furnaces and the like.
But for what they’re asking for, and for the timing of it, it’s just too much to ask of taxpayers right now.