State Of State Offers Hope To Local School Merger

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During an address largely dedicated to past successes, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo touched on a few topics germane to the East End last week during his annual State of the State address.

But while the words directed east were few, they carried significance, with Mr. Cuomo at one point giving hope to those who’d like to see a local school merger.

Although there is no guarantee that every piece of the agenda laid out by the governor will be reflected in his preliminary budget, traditionally, the State of the State address is used as the first step in a long budget negotiation between himself and the two sides of the State Legislature. And as of late, the governor has been winning a majority of the battles, checking off a large portion of his yearly addresses as successes.

In his address, the governor encouraged measures by the State Legislature and local municipalities to start consolidating burdensome services—shedding positive light on what has been an intense East End debate of late.

Calling the mounting expense of local governments “a major structural problem,” the governor aimed his sights on “the proliferation and expense of local governments.”

“The main burden in New York State isn’t the income tax, it is the property tax,” he added. Saying New Yorkers have the highest average property tax rate in the country, Mr. Cuomo asked and then answered his own question: “Why are our property taxes so high? Because we have too many local governments, and we have had them for too long … 10,500 local governments. These are towns, villages, fire district, water district, library, sewage district—one district just to count the other districts in case you missed a district,” he joked, notably leaving out school districts.

Indicating that he is open to linking state funding with consolidation of local government services—something already being discussed in the capital by Senator Kenneth LaValle and Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., in relation to the merger between the Tuckahoe and Southampton school districts—Mr. Cuomo said such a move is “exactly the right course.”

“This will bode well for any proposal for the Southampton-Tuckahoe merger,” Assemblyman Thiele said of the governor’s comments on Wednesday. “We still would need legislation specific to these districts. The governor’s proposal alone is not enough. In short, the climate is right in Albany for a bill that would reduce taxes for both districts if they consolidate.”

In lockstep with lowering expenses, Mr. Cuomo proposed to lower taxes as well. Emphasizing that the state has, by his numbers, gone from a $10 billion deficit to a $2 billion surplus during his three-year reign, he said, “The state has no economic future as the tax capital of the nation. People move and businesses flee. So let’s continue to make our state more competitive. Let’s cut more burdensome business taxes.”

One specific “burdensome” tax includes the corporate tax rate, currently at 7.1 percent, which Mr. Cuomo would like to bring to 1968 levels of 6.5 percent. Other pro-business strategies trumpeted by the governor included raising the personal state income tax thresholds, lowering overall income tax rates, and eliminating the estate tax, which, according to the governor, prompts “people [to] literally leave the state in order to do their estate planning.”

Locally, Assemblyman Thiele has also introduced legislation regarding the estate tax, rightly predicting last month that the governor would support the effort early on in the session.

On another topic debated locally, Mr. Cuomo proposed an “education reinvention” including mandatory full-day prekindergarten and the implementation of a “teacher excellence fund,” which would dole out bonuses to teachers who rated highly within the newly implemented teacher evaluation system.

“It is going to be the first statewide teacher performance bonus program that actually rewards performance for teachers and incentivizes teachers to perform well,” he said. “Teachers who are rated highly effective on their evaluations … would be eligible to receive $20,000 as a bonus,” or about 27 percent of the statewide teacher salary.

“You want teachers who can perform and do perform?” he asked. “Pay them like the professionals they are.”

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