Niagara Gazette

March 21, 2013

Niagara-Wheatfield looking at 6 percent tax hike, still facing $1.4M shortfall

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — In the interest of providing as many programming options it can to students next year, the Niagara-Wheatfield school board will pursue a budget with a 5.91 percent tax levy increase.

It's going to take the almost 6 percent increase to give the district a fighting chance this upcoming year, School Board President Steve Sabo said, given the alternative is making cuts to programs beyond the skeleton currently operating at the district.

"Without this tax increase, we're looking at a $3.1 million gap for next year at a zero increase," Sabo said. "Taking into account the maximum levy increase we can, it's $1.4 million."

Wednesday's action provides interim business manager Richard Hitzges, filling in for the retired Kerin Dumphrey through the end of the school year, and Interim Superintendent James Knowles with a place to begin investigating what cuts will be needed to close the estimated $1.4 million deficit.

If the district were to carry over all of its staffing from this year to next year, the spending plan would come in at $63.7 million. With a 5.91 percent levy increase, the maximum alloted under New York's tax levy cap, only $62.2 million in revenues will be received.

So even after the massive cuts the last two years, seeing 91 employees hit the unemployment line, and consistent enrollment figures, more pain will be felt by the district's employees, not just the taxpayers.

Where those cuts come from is still to be determined, but a worst-case scenario would involve eliminating some massively popular, but not mandated, programs the district was able to save last year despite a gruesome budget season.

"We're talking kindergarten, junior varsity and varsity sports," Sabo said. "That's what we're left with right now. There's nothing else to cut from."

The district will likely receive some help due to the retirements – including Dumphrey's, which Sabo said saves the district $10,000 this year – but not enough to overcome the gap. Additional state aid may also become available once a state budget is finalized in the coming days, while deferring more costs to the debt service fund may also be possible, according to Hitzges.

All of these items combined may dent the gap, but will still leave the district with cuts to make. Neighboring district Lewiston-Porter is considering cutting 10 teachers in its budget, which would save them about $701,000 next year. For Niagara-Wheatfield to find $1.4 million could be catastrophic to a teaching staff.

"People need to remember it's an economic problem, too," Knowles said. "People tend to move to districts which have good school systems and tend to leave or not even consider moving to at all the districts which don't."

Board member Christopher Peters said the problem the district faces can be traced back to a series of years Niagara-Wheatfield residents had a zero percent increase to taxes, a luxury he said ultimately put the residents in a position to possibly shoulder a 6 percent levy increase one year after a 5 percent increase was passed.

There may be some good news for the district as state lawmakers announced a tentative state budget deal Wednesday that increases spending on education by $1 billion over the present year, when lawmakers added $890 million to school funding from 2011-12 levels. It is not yet known how that will impact local districts.

"I really think we can get out of this hole if we can pass this increase," Peters said. "If you think about it, those three or four years when taxes weren't increased at all hurt us. We're left to clean it up. But I'd rather clean it up now and clean it up fast than let it linger."

Discussing the budget will continue with a special presentation available to the public beginning at 7 p.m. tonight at West Street Elementary.