Niagara Gazette

February 13, 2014

Niagara-Wheatfield officials can't raise taxes for 2014-15 budget without overriding state tax cap

By Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The financial hits to Niagara-Wheatfield’s revenues keep coming. This time in the form of its tax levy.

Using preliminary calculations from the consumer price index, district business officials determined the 2014-15 tax levy threshold numbers allowed under the state’s property tax cap to be zero.

As in there won’t be any increase to the district’s tax levy in the budget proposed this coming May unless the district attempts to override the tax cap.

“We would not be able to increase our tax levy without a supermajority vote in May,” business manager Allison Brady said, discussing the figure at the school board meeting Wednesday.

Brady’s actual calculation came out to a negative levy change of minus-0.6 percent, but he explained the cap law cannot force districts or municipalities to decrease its collection figures.

This revelation compounds a problem from last month when Gov. Andrew Cuomo released his executive budget projections for district state aid, slightly reducing the total dollar amount Niagara-Wheatfield would receive in 2014-15. Following the governor’s budget, which awaits legislative input from the state Assembly and Senate, the district spent $500,000 in leftover money to purchase five new buses following a special election last week.

A state comptroller report released at the same time as the executive budget also revealed “significant fiscal stress” for Niagara-Wheatfield, explaining the district is highly susceptible to financial hardship due to a number of environmental and monetary factors.

Now officials will need to formulate its next spending plan without any new tax revenue coming in, a drastic change from the two most recent years on record. Tax collection in the district has increased by more than 4 percent each year despite massive layoffs to district personnel, a total of 4.85 percent in June 2012 and another 4.5 percent this past year.

Brady, who took her position in September, and Superintendent Lynn Fusco, who assumed control this past July, will be working to create a budget that deals with the limited resources the district will be faced with heading forward.

“With a zero increase, it would require some significant decreases (of programs),” Fusco said. “We’ll have to take a look at our current budget, how it’s performing and our projections for how it’ll look at the end of the year to see how we’re going to be. We’ll need to do a little more work.”

Is it a shock the zero increase came? Only as soon as it did, school board President Steve Sabo said. Forecasts from last year’s interim business manager Richard Hitzges had 2015-16 pegged as the district’s slide toward a reversal of fortunes following two years where state-allowed exemptions allowed Niagara-Wheatfield to increase its levy well beyond the law’s 2 percent limit.

But Hitzges was basing his opinion on a consumer price index allotment of more than 2 percent for this next year. Brady’s calculation used a revised figure of slightly less than 1.5 percent.

“We knew it was coming down the road,” Sabo said. “It’s just a year earlier than expected.”

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