East Quogue Board Of Education Opts Not To Pierce Tax Cap

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In an 11th-hour declaration that came just before the adoption of its 2014-15 budget, the East Quogue Board of Education announced that it would not, in fact, need to pierce the state-mandated tax cap to maintain staff and programs within the single-school district.

The announcement made last Wednesday evening, April 23, drew applause and a collective sigh of relief from parents and taxpayers in the district, as the board had spent the past month publicly preparing for a second attempt to pierce the state-mandated tax levy cap in as many years.

The adopted budget, which now only requires a simple majority to pass when put before the public on Tuesday, May 20, totals slightly more than $22.8 million, a nearly 1.9-percent increase over this year’s $22.4 million spending plan. Originally, the board discussed a budget of $23 million for the coming school year.

East Quogue Superintendent Les Black said the school was able to adhere to the cap thanks to roughly $200,000 in additional last-minute state aid.

Once the district received the additional funding, it made a few additional cuts to line items that had already been reduced from this year’s budget, including the hours of the district’s technology adviser and other employees. The board also had to dip into the district’s fund balance to make up some of the difference, Mr. Black said.

While the adopted budget does not call for any layoffs, one teacher assistant position will be eliminated through attrition, as the district is choosing not to fill a vacancy created this year. The move is expected to save the district about $50,000.

“When we met two weeks ago, it was clear to us that the gap between where our budget was and getting down to the cap was too large—it would require too much in the way of cuts,” he said. “We were given some good news: Our local legislators have come through with additional revenue that cut the gap considerably. Once we got close to the cap, we could not, in good conscience, go to the community still trying to break the cap when we were that close.”

The additional funding will come from a lump sum set aside within the state’s education budget specifically to help districts in financial trouble, State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele said on Friday, adding that he anticipates the legislation awarding this money being signed into law sometime this week.

Mr. Thiele said officials with the East Quogue School District approached him and State Senator Kenneth LaValle last fall seeking additional funding after a unsuccessful attempt to pierce the tax cap the previous spring. The district fell seven votes shy of the necessary 60 percent of votes to pierce the cap in May 2013.

Mr. Thiele said he and Mr. LaValle sought out additional funding for East Quogue specifically because it requested the help, unlike other districts, such as Bridgehampton, which is attempting to pierce the tax cap this May.

“They had a very difficult time with their school budget last year, which was continuing to be a problem primarily because they can’t control the tuition they pay to Westhampton Beach,” Mr. Thiele said of East Quogue.

“What kind of cinched our ability to get this funding was when they showed up on the state comptroller’s list of distressed districts,” he continued, referring to a report released by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli in January that classified East Quogue as being in moderate fiscal stress. “We were able to make a compelling argument based on those factors.”

The board-approved budget would be supported by a $22.5 million tax levy, which would increase the tax rate by about 1.4 percent, from $11.35 per $1,000 of assessed value this year to about $11.51 next year. As a result, a taxpayer in East Quogue whose home is assessed at $500,000 can expect to pay approximately $5,755 in school taxes next year, or $80 more than this year.

But because the district’s spending plan is under the cap, residents can still qualify for a state-issued rebate to completely offset the increase in tuition that will go out to all districts that adhere to the cap. Mr. Black said although he’s not certain about the figures, he is estimating that the average homeowner would get a rebate of about $100.

“Don’t hold me to this, folks, because we have not been given an exact dollar amount from New York State,” Mr. Black added. “So this is guess work. Could it be $80? Yes. Could it be $110? Yes. We’re estimating it to be about $100.”

If that estimate holds true, it would mean a net savings of $20 compared to this year’s tax bill.

Penni Russo, chairwoman of the East Quogue Teacher Association’s budget committee, congratulated the board in adopting a budget that adhered to the tax cap during the public comment portion of last week’s meeting.

“Let me be the first to publicly say thank you to all of you. I don’t know how you did it. I can show you my checkbook—maybe you can help me out, too,” Ms. Russo said with a laugh. “On behalf of all the teachers, we really appreciate that you were interested in saving programs, and you saved them, keeping things intact that make this community exactly the perfect community that it is.”

The district is out of the woods for the coming year, but Mr. Thiele emphasized that the additional funding is a one-time deal that cannot be counted on for future budget cycles. In order to address the perennial financial issues facing the district, East Quogue will have to seek out more permanent solutions, he added.

“For all of the small school districts, they need to look at, if not all-out consolidation, at least more shared services with other districts to offset costs,” Mr. Thiele said.

“There’s this perception, which is I think is a correct perception, that how can we expect consolidation to work if it won’t work between districts like Tuckahoe and Southampton?” he continued, referring to last year’s failed attempt to merge those two neighboring districts. “So I think a lot of school districts are waiting to see how that plays out.”

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