Niagara Gazette

May 18, 2013

GUEST VIEW: Breaking down the Lew-Port budget vote

By Keith Fox
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Einstein once said he did not understand our tax system; well, I fear, most of us do not either. I want to share a few facts about your school district and taxes.

Governor Cuomo is advertising no increases in income taxes. This is smoke and mirrors! He has done this by cutting state aid to many agencies like schools. Our Lewiston-Porter school state aid has been cut $9.4 million in the past four years. How has Lew-Port responded? We have cut staff and programs, modified some classes, and changed bus routes, along with many other things to get our expenses down to the amount of income we have to pay for them. This may include up to 41 people losing their jobs this year.

The school board approves a budget; the town and state decide the value of your home. The town then sets the tax rate. A little complex, yes! For fear that I might write something in error, I will just give you an example of might happen to a hypothetical senior home owner:

• A home is appraised at say $125,000, however, the State Equitation Board may decide it is worth $150.000. That would be what you will be taxed on. In Lewiston, your tax would be about $2,360.

• Most homeowners and seniors will qualify for the Star exemption. This is available to all homeowners regardless of age, but you have to apply for it. The amount varies from town to town, in Lewiston it will be $24,600. This will drop the taxable property value to $124,400.

• A senior over 65 may qualify for the Enhanced Star which in Lewiston is worth $51,910. All seniors with an income of less than $79,600 based on income information taken from the 2011 tax year. In this calculation, income means federal “adjusted gross income” minus the “taxable amount” of total distributions from individual retirement accounts or individual retirement annuities (IRA’s). This exemption drops the taxable property amount to $72,490.00

• The bottom line: This senior can expect the school tax to go up about $7 a month — if the voters approve the budget.

• Can you spare $7 a month for good schools?

• If, God forbid, you do not have these Star exemptions, check with your town’s assessor.

• If your household income is less than $29,000, you may qualify for even more savings.

The school board believes that the majority of those living within the Lewiston-Porter School District are proud of their school system and want to see it continue.

Next on the ballot is the capital improvement bond issue.

Every five years, the state requires that school districts complete a professional Building Condition Survey.

I sit on the school board’s Facilities Committee. Since 2010, we have been reviewing this survey.

We have met with our financial consultants to determine how much funding can be borrowed, in a way that will not impact the school taxpayer. That determination set the limit on what we will spend on repairs now. Capital funds are separate from school operating funds. The two budgets do not mix.

The state sets priorities:

• PRIORITY ONE: Mandated items such as health and safety and handicapped accessibility. It also includes items that have a useful life of less than three years. Most of these are not very “exciting”, i.e. emergency lighting, a sewage lift station and leaking roofs.

• PRIORITY TWO: Includes items that will create energy savings; repairs to major systems like roofs, external brick work; mechanical, electrical and technology systems. The swimming pool at the high school, which was built in 1967 and is on the second floor, has been leaking and patched for years. Those leaks also created major problems on the floor below. We have State Education approval to move the pool to a ground floor location. Much of the brick work at the high school needs repair; the list is long.

PRIORITY THREE: Items that would be nice to do, but are not critical. This list could be long but is not included in this voter referendum.

Your school board has worked to make the tax levy neutral for these needed building repairs.

Funds for these improvements will come from a special state fund — which cannot be used for anything else — and Power Authority money.

Keith Fox is a Lewiston resident and member of the Lewiston-Porter School Board.