Our best interests

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The recently resurrected contentious debates over school expansions, school funding and PILOT (payments in lieu of taxes) disbursements bring us once again full circle to the underlying crux of the matter: Who ultimately bears the responsibility for funding and providing education to the student population of a state or municipality, and what mechanism(s) should be employed to fulfill that responsibility in a fair and equitable manner?

Some related points to consider:

• New York State Constitution Article XI, Section 1, mandates public education as fundamentally a state responsibility: “… The legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.”

• PILOTS: During the November 12 Town Board meeting that dealt specifically with the Community Preservation Fund and PILOT payments, I had reiterated my long-held belief that axiomatic “preserved” land is the most cost-effective for taxpayers, requiring virtually no infrastructure support of any significance (whether related to school costs or police, fire, ambulance, water supply services); and that the CPF program, when established, was essentially marketed as a much needed preservation vehicle (not a slush fund to finance other taxing districts or budgetary shortfalls), thus making it inappropriate to cannibalize the CPF coffers for any such ancillary purposes.

While the authorizing state law apparently contained a provision that up to 10 percent of the CPF could be used for PILOTs annually, the decision to actually allocate a PILOT payment was left at the sole discretion of the town. Interestingly, and notwithstanding intervening tinkering with the legislation, its chief architect, Assemblyman Fred Thiele, had previously also been quoted as stating: “The CPF can’t be used to offset school taxes,” and that the CPF “… was set up as a dedicated fund for one purpose only: land preservation” (“New Tax Program Could Lower Costs,” Western Edition, August 31, 2006).

• School districts in Southampton Town: Complicating the issue are the unique circumstances prevailing within Southampton Town. Certain sectors of the town—as a consequence of dysfunctional and flawed (in my opinion) zoning policies—are burdened with a disproportionate population density and resultant high school budgets and taxes. These sectors are routinely and euphemistically categorized as the “working class” components of the town as an aggregate. But to the extent that these workers represent a benefit and are also utilized for the least densely populated and consequentially wealthier sectors of the town, it would be eminently more sensible that a school tax “sharing” system is devised.

Simply put: The cost of educating all of the student population throughout the town (regardless of where they happen to be domiciled) should be “amortized” over the entire tax base of the Town of Southampton.

Such an approach, combined with strategic school district consolidation and a system of “regional” rather than local secondary schools, would serve to further reduce costs and eliminate redundancies.

None would refute that it is indeed the obligation—and in the best interest—of all citizens to educate the young population of any town. But it is neither productive nor equitable to shift that obligation onto a few, predicated on the mere fact of physical residency and/or school population (the latter artificially predetermined by zoning and density factors).

EVE HOULIHANHampton Bays

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