Governor Andrew M. Cuomo on Tuesday morning signed recently approved state legislation that will allow the Southampton School District to use $9 million to offset tax increases if a merger with the Tuckahoe School District is approved.
The bill is specific to the two East End school districts. It gives Southampton the option to use money from its capital reserve fund, which had been earmarked to build new office space, to offset tax increases related to a merger. Instead, Southampton could use office space that is available in the Tuckahoe School District’s Magee Street building via the merger.
The legislation would greatly reduce, and possibly eliminate, any immediate increases to Southampton residents’ taxes due to a merger, once it is coupled with a similar measure, approved in March, that would allow two separate tax districts within one school district, as well as a 10-year period to phase in new tax rates for a merged district.
“This smart legislation protects property taxpayers as they consider this merger and is a testament to the communities that are working together to cut costs for their residents,” the governor said in a statement.
“We are investigating, and have been investigating, whether or not we will need a new district office should we merge,” Southampton Superintendent Dr. Scott Farina said on Tuesday. “It does not obligate the school district in any way to make use of the legislation, and I think that the more options the school district has through legislation to support a merger is certainly a good thing.”
The Southampton and Tuckahoe school districts have been discussing a merger to alleviate a bleak financial future for Tuckahoe for several years, but no action was taken until October 2012, when the two districts commissioned a merger study. A plan that outlined details for the Southampton School District to annex Tuckahoe was approved by New York State Education Commissioner John B. King’s office in August 2013. Voters in the two districts were able to cast the first of several votes on the proposal—and in the first round, the plan was overwhelmingly approved by Tuckahoe voters but rejected by voters in the Southampton School District.
The study estimated that Southampton taxpayers could expect to see an increase of roughly 21 cents to their annual property tax rate, which would be about 8.7 percent, or $105 more a year on a house assessed at $500,000. Meanwhile, Tuckahoe’s property tax rate would be slashed by $4.82—nearly two-thirds of the current rate—saving the owner of a house assessed at $500,000 more than $2,400 in annual property taxes.
Although Tuckahoe residents approved the merger, 565-35, Southampton residents rejected the proposal, 1,075-693, temporarily shelving the idea while officials from both districts and state legislators went back to the drawing board to try to equalize the tax rates.
“It is up to the people in the community,” Senator Kenneth P. LaValle said on Tuesday. “I feel it is my job as a legislator to try and shape the best possible deal and then let the people decide.”
The Southampton district has been considering constructing a new office building for several years. Currently, administrators occupy a modular building nestled between the high school and intermediate school. In the merger feasibility study commissioned by both districts, it was suggested that if a merger is approved, a new building may not be necessary.
This week, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. noted that several measures were now in place to help the Southampton residents if they approve a merger. “The nice thing about the legislation is that it is home rule, so they can decide if they still need to use the money for capital projects, or if they only want to use part of it for tax stabilization,” he said. “It gives them the decision-making authority instead of just a capital reserve fund.”
All of the measures to help facilitate the merger—including a tax increase freeze, where the state would pay any tax increases for the first year and phase in additional charges over a decade—are contingent upon voter approval of the annexation. A new referendum date has not been set, but it would have to be held within the next year, or a new merger study would have to be completed first.