Niagara Gazette

March 21, 2013

Proposed Falls School District budget doesn't specify tax increase, expected to be at least 3 percent

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Niagara Falls City School District officials are hopeful certain state-controlled issues will make a $124 million spending plan possible for 2013-14.

With the guidance of those officials, the district's school board formally adopted Superintendent Cynthia Bianco's budget proposal and will now wait to see what district residents think when they vote in May.

"The only thing we can do at this point is base it on assumptions," Bianco said of those state issues determining the district's finances. Chief among the concerns is the casino dispute, which is tied up in battles between New York state and the Seneca Nation of Indians.

The formal adoption by the board solidifies what money the district will cap spending at if the public approves it in May. What isn't made clear is the effect such a spending plan would have on the district's property tax revenue.

Throughout discussions about the budget since February, Bianco and Administrator for School Business Services Timothy Hyland have proposed including a 3 percent increase to the district's tax levy, an unheard of proposition in Niagara Falls for the last 19 years.

But the increase is nowhere to be seen in the proposition residents will be voting on at the polls, though in creating scenarios, leaders were unable to imagine any budget without the additional income.

Before unanimously approving the budget, school board members had an opportunity to speak about the potential tax increase, mostly centered on its necessity outweighing desires for a 20th consecutive year at the same figure.

"I think it's time we took a good look at it," Don King said. "In hindsight, I think I would have rather had a 1 percent increase every year for the last 10 years or so if it would have kept our district from this. Now is the time to look at it realistically."

"It's a necessary evil to keep all of our programs for the children in tact," Nick Vilardo said. "It's something we have to do to give our kids the best education possible."

Under the state's property tax cap law, the district would be able to raise its levy by 3.77 percent before needing a 60 percent majority approval to bypass the law. However, Hyland has expressed concerns the district's cap the next few years may be zero as high-cost increases like the state's pension system are anticipated to level off or decrease.

What does the budget proposal mean to the district's students? If the casino revenues are sorted out through mediation by June, there would only be a reduction of five teachers – four through attrition – and seven total employees. Popular programs like summer camps and modified sports would receive full funding for next year, while the district's school resource officer would remain at the high school for another year.

But if the casino revenues remain tied up in litigation or the district is unable to receive assistance dealing with a massive increase in payments to the Teacher Retirement System – projected to increase $2 million from current year levels – those programs could get the axe and more teachers could find themselves in the unemployment line.

"This district has done just about everything it can to control costs," Board Member Russell Petrozzi said. "Unfortunately, our state officials haven't done anything themselves. They keep passing the burden on to the local taxpayers because they don't have the guts to do it themselves. It's unfortunate the timing is bad, but it needs to be done."

What the tax increase will not affect is the capital improvement project voters approved this past September. That project, which officials promised would not cause an increase in taxes, is not part of the $124 million proposal.

Board member James Cancemi said he struggled with adopting the budget because of the timing coming off making such promises. But he approved it because the district is in need of the extra $750,000 a 3 percent increase will generate.

"We told the community over and over again there wouldn't be a tax increase because of the capital project if it was passed," he said. "Now, we're sitting here talking about this tax increase. But the state has put a strain on every school district. My heart tells me to vote no based on the timing. But it's with a clear conscience that I vote yes."

Big red number 3.77 Amount tax levy can be raised before needing a 60 percent majority approval to bypass the law