Niagara Gazette

May 9, 2013

Taxing situation in Niagara-Wheatfield

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — If the proposed 2013-14 Niagara-Wheatfield district budget is approved by voters at the annual election May 21, taxes will increase. For everyone.

The budget proposes a 5.91 percent increase to the district tax levy, which would increase the total dollar amount to be collected to $30.4 million. It's a figure the school board bills Niagara County, guaranteed to the district.

But figuring out how the increase affects households and businesses in the community is tricky, as assessment values and equalization rates won't be finalized until the end of the summer.

For instance, Town of Niagara homeowners would be facing a tax rate of $29.27 per $1,000 assessed value. By contrast, the same residents paid $27.64 per $1,000 value this year. The difference between the two comes out to an average increase of $114.33 on a $100,000 house next year, once the $30,000 basic STAR exemption is factored in.

By comparison, the Town of Cambria residents within the district would pay a tax rate of $17.11 per $1,000 value. Increasing from a current rate of $16.15 per $1,000 value, the change results in an average cost increase of $66.82 on a $100,000 house, again factoring in the basic STAR exemption.

The difference between the two stems from differing equalization rates, according to the district's interim business manager, Richard Hitzges. Set by New York State, the equalization rate attempts to even the playing field from town to town since some don't assess property at what the state believes to be 100 percent value, Hitzges said.

Cambria, he said, is the only town among the four within the school district to assess its property at 100 percent value, meaning property is considered to be assessed at its true value.

Wheatfield residents, meanwhile, will see taxes increase an average of $96.53 heading into 2013-14, with a tax rate set at $24.71 per $1,000. Lewiston residents similarly will pay $20.86 per $1,000 assessed value, coming out to an average increase of $81.48.

The figures would only go into affect if voters approve the district's $62.8 million plan. If they decide the tax levy increase, which does not exceed the limit allowed under the state's property tax cap, the board could turn in one of two directions.

Like last May, when a 9.9 percent levy increase was outright rejected by voters, the board could propose a second budget, which could feature any type of levy increase, including one which equals the current proposal. This avenue would result in a second election June 18, Hitzges said.

An option also exists, though unpopular, to forgo a second attempt and enter into a contingency budget. But Hitzges warned this situation would deeply cut into the programs in which Niagara-Wheatfield students would be able to participate.

"A contingency budget would force the district to operate with no change to the tax levy from the previous year's value," he said, meaning he and his staff would need to cut at least $1.7 million from spending.

Officials speculate such a reduction in revenue could force a desperate district, reeling after a three-year period of 103 staffing cuts and eliminations, to chop some or all of its sports, music, art and kindergarten programs, all items not mandated under state education law.

Long-term relief, at least from drastic levy increases, may be on the horizon. The district is currently negotiating two of its three union contracts and should a new agreement be reached, some cost savings could be realized. State aid has also picked up heading into next year, with the district set to receive $1.4 million more than what was projected heading into this year.

No matter what the future holds, though, the seven members of the school board are hoping for a strong turnout at the polls May 21. 

"This is obviously a difficult time for many people," School Board President Steve Sabo said. "It's the one budget where your vote does have an affect on a budget. We're very cognizant of the problems we have in the district, especially to those on fixed income. We're trying to make the best possible decisions with the information we have."

Contact reporter Timothy Chipp at 282-2311, ext. 2251 or follow on Twitter @timchipp.