In the next few months, the Amsterdam school board will be developing a plan on how to best distribute the excess surplus funds it illegally collected from taxpayers over the past few years.
Here's a plan: Give it back.
The state comptroller's office, in an audit released recently, faulted the district for maintaining an unrestricted budget surplus beyond the 4 percent allowed by law. That's money for which they have no specific intended purpose.
Districts are also allowed to keep 2 percent of a surplus for use on items they know they're going to be spending it on later.
The limits are in place to ensure accurate budgeting practices and to make sure the district isn't taking too much money from taxpayers at once.
In Amsterdam's case, the district built up unrestricted surpluses of 5.3 percent in the 2013-14 school year and 5.4 percent in the 2014-15 school year. Over the past three budget seasons, the total surplus has grown to $7.7 million.
That money is money that would otherwise have been in the pockets of individual taxpayers for their own personal use.
The comptroller's office attributed the problems to overly conservative spending estimates.
It’s true, they could have been based on old pricing parameters, before gas prices dropped, for instance. They could be due to inaccurate bids or developers’ estimates. Or they could be a ploy to deliberately overestimate costs so that the district could collect more tax money.
When the estimates the district made came in lower than expected, the district hoarded it in the rainy-day fund to spend at its own discretion for undetermined uses and an undetermined amount of time.
Unless district residents had dug into the actual budget, they'd have had no idea this was going on — as the unrestricted budget amounts were listed neither in the district's annual budget Powerpoint presentation nor in the budget newsletter sent out to voters.
Maybe it's not exactly a secret slush fund, but the board sure didn't advertise that it existed.
In response to the comptroller's audit, the district stated that it would follow the recommendations that it create a multi-year budget plan and "address the use of the restricted and unrestricted fund balance."
Districts that take in too much surplus are legally allowed to do one of four things with the excess — make one-time expenditures, pay down existing debt, reduce property taxes or put the money in other surplus accounts.
If the district spends the money on something else, or puts it in another reserve account, it's essentially telling taxpayers that it was entitled to collect the extra taxes and spend it anyway it wanted.
Since residents of the district have been unknowingly supporting a tax increase the last couple of years, and since the excess money in the unrestricted surplus account shouldn't have been collected from them in the first place, the money should be applied to reducing taxes next year. It's the taxpayers' money.
They should get the first crack at it.