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Johnstown budget passes with 70 percent voter approval

Johnstown budget passes with 70 percent voter approval

District revote OKs 3.7 percent tax levy hike
Johnstown budget passes with 70 percent voter approval
Marilyn Poitras shows voters how to cast their ballots for the school budget at Johnstown High School Tuesday.
Photographer: Peter R. Barber

In a high voter turnout, the Greater Johnstown School District's 2018-19 budget revote passed Tuesday night by a margin of 525 yes votes. 

There were screams of jubilation among school board members and administrators as the vote totals were read. 

"Oh my goodness! I am pleasantly surprised. We were cautiously optimistic, and this is just so exciting, and such a testament to the work that people did to get us to this place and the confidence that the taxpayers and the voters have shown in our ability to go forward with what we need to do for our students, our staff and our community," School Board President Kathy Dougherty said.

Johnstown was the only school district in the region to fail to pass its budget on May 15, in part because the district needed a 60 percent majority to break its tax cap. The district's first budget, which proposed $35.8 million in spending and included a 4.9 percent tax levy increase, failed with a 51 percent majority: 461 yes votes to 439 no votes.

Tuesday night the revised $35.7 million budget received 70 percent approval. Out of 1,323 votes cast, 924 were yes to 399 no. The approved budget included a 3.7 percent property tax levy increase, as well as about $1.1 million in spending cuts, which included eliminating at least 13 positions, some modified sports, reduction of the athletic director's position to 40 percent time, elimination of the marching band and school newspaper and two-year salary freezes for Superintendent Patricia Kilburn and Assistant Superintendent Ruthie Cook, as well as some other cuts. 

Kilburn said she believes the district was more effective in its communication of the seriousness of Johnstown's financial difficulties before the revote. She said the district did more social media communication, including live streaming on Facebook a district budget presentation, which received more than 2,000 views.

Kilburn said Johnstown's budget situation for the future remains precarious. She said the district still needs to eliminate at least $3 million from its budget over the next several years. The only alternative to significant spending cuts would be 13 percent tax levy increases for each of the next six years, she said.

It's likely Johnstown will need tax levy hikes of 3 to 5 percent for next several years at least to deal with the district's rising costs, declining enrollment and relatively flat state aid, she said.

"I saw a shift, between the last budget in May and this one, in the complexity of the questions people were asking," she said. "How many people were reaching out and becoming engaged in the process." 

Paul Maxson, a district voter, said he voted against the budget because he didn't like the way the district was spending money. He pointed to work on Johnstown High School's roof, part of the district's $39.6 million capital project, as part of the reason he was against it. 

"I figure, if I get a paycheck, I have to work within the limits of my paycheck," he said. "It was too much of an increase, maybe just a little premature of what they really need, the building budget. Little projects all add up. I thought about it for a couple of minutes, but that's how I ended up." 

Kilburn said Johnstown's capital project accounted for zero spending in the district's 2018-19 budget, and the project will be 95 percent reimbursed by New York state, with 50 percent of the local share coming out of an existing $2 million reserve fund. She said she knows the capital project was often cited by residents who were inclined to vote no on the budget, but she attempted to explain to voters why the project was not to blame for the district's difficult financial position.

"I don't know if I made inroads on that, but I know that we specifically messaged for that," she said. 

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