Niagara Gazette

February 7, 2013

Lesson learned in Niagara-Wheatfield as budget talks heat up

by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Niagara-Wheatfield’s budget proposal will not exceed the state’s tax threshold for 2013-14.

Despite early projections showing a second consecutive multimillion-dollar budget deficit, the district’s school board took action Wednesday to not propose more than a 5.58 percent increase to its tax levy, the maximum allowed under the state’s cap.

“I think what we learned from last year is that it’s probably not wise to try to exceed the cap,” Board President Steve Sabo said before making the motion to not seek more. “We would probably not be able to pass a budget this year.”

The decision comes on the heels of May’s failed attempt to pass a 9.9 percent levy increase through the voting booth, which was later replaced by a 4.85 percent reworked increase in June. The second attempt was accepted by voters.

Wednesday’s action was necessary to meet the March 1 deadline the state requires concerning notification of intent. Each year, districts must notify Albany as to whether they will consider exceeding or not.

Based on a formula, the tax levy threshold – or property tax cap – is not a hard 2 percent for school districts. The figure allows districts to factor in mandated increases like pension contributions, as well as increases in property valuations. Increases in certain types of state aid also reduce the cap figure.

According to district Business Manager Kerin Dumphrey, if the board pursues a 5.58 percent increase, cuts of more than $1.4 million would still be needed. But the problem, he said, stems from the money the district is receiving, not what it’s spending.

“We have a revenue problem, not a spending problem,” he said. “The way New York state distributes its aid is not equitable ... and we’re not able to make up the funding cuts at the local level. But we’ll continue to live within our means.”

Dumphrey’s largest gripe comes from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget, which was released in January and serves as the building block to the final state budget Albany enacts. In it, school aid is increased by 4.4 percent total. Niagara-Wheatfield, meanwhile, would only see a 1.49 percent increase next year. This figure provides the district $330,000 in additional income.

This pales in comparison to the increase the district faces in contributions to both the teacher and employee retirement systems. It’s also a measly 15 percent of the possible health care cost increase the district faces should the one-year union concessions made in July aren’t renewed.

But after showcasing just how much trouble the state’s budget proposal has caused the district, Dumphrey took some time to shine a brief ray of light on the future.

“The biggest item driving up our costs is benefits,” he said. “If we can figure out a way to get everyone to cooperate again, I don’t think we’re that far off.”

Finishing the job of balancing revenues and expenditures could be difficult in a district which just endured more than 60 staffing cuts in July, part of an effort to close a massive 2012-13 budget hole of approximately $8 million. But administrators for the district’s higher level buildings asked the board not to cut from their staffs.

Both Timothy Carter, principal at the district’s high school, and Laura Palka, his counterpart at Edward Town Middle School, said cuts would do more harm to buildings already operating at high stress levels. But neither requested more bodies, only to maintain current figures.

Carter said enough is enough.

“Someone has to put their hand up and say ‘Whoa, stop,’” Carter said. Palka added her presentation sounded like a sob story but only reflected reality, which she can handle as is.

The full 2013-14 preliminary spending plan is expected to be revealed by Interim Superintendent James Knowles at the board’s next meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. March 6, in the adult learning center of the high school, 2292 Saunders Settlement Road, Lewiston.