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A decrease in state money and we're going to be limited on what we can raise locally? It is going to be a very, very difficult year.

Cuomo wants property tax cap for schools

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As Governor Andrew Cuomo prepares to take office, one of his most high-profile agenda items is a proposed cap on the local property taxes that fund public schools.

It's not exactly a hard cap, but Cuomo wants to limit annual increases to just 2%.

That would be a big change from the double-digit increases that some North Country districts have seen in recent years.

The idea of some kind of property tax relief is supported by a wide range of politicians and tax-reform activists.

But many educators say other ideas should be on the table as well. And they say schools could be squeezed dangerously, forcing them to cut more teachers and more programs.

Brian Mann has our story

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

Andrew Cuomo has been complaining for years that New York state has too many local taxing jurisdictions – more than 10,000 of them, all levying taxes and fees.

When he hit the campaign trail this summer, he proposed limiting the ability of hundreds of school districts around the state to raise property taxes by more than 2% a year. 

"The idea for a property tax, why?" he said during a whistle stop in New Paltz.  "Because at one point, you have to say enough is enough.  You can't just keep raising taxes because you don't want to manage the government."

A growing collection of activist and business groups in New York state agree that  property taxes are out of control.  ‘

"The property tax is fundamentally inequitable," said John Whiteley, from Ticonderoga, who is afilliated with the New york State Property Tax Reform Coalition.  He appeared last week on public radio’s program the Capitol Pressroom.

Whiteley’s group actually supports a different approach to limiting local property taxes, one that would create a so-called breaker switch for each household. 

"If you have an inequitable system, you should be reducing the use of that system.  In fact we're increasing the use of the [property tax] system because of state policy," he said.  

Under the Coalition’s proposal, property taxes wouldn’t be allowed to go above a certain percentage of each homeowner’s income.

"And then long-term, we have to change the funding system," Whiteley said, "so we reduce the use of property taxes to fund public schools."

Now here’s an interesting point in this debate. Generally speaking teachers unions and education advocates hate the idea of capping property taxes – or doing anything that would reduce funding for schools. 

 But the New York State Union of Teachers actually supports the idea of some sort of circuit breaker provision. 

"A circuit breaker for property taxes protects your home, protects your checkbook from being overloaded by high property taxes," said Karl Korn, a spokesman for NYSUT.  "You would receive a rebate from the state."

Under these circuit breaker proposals, the state would make up the difference, paying for any revenue lost to school districts because of the new rule. 

"Greater state support for public schools would make a huge difference," Korn argued.

The problem, of course, is that the state of New York is broke too – facing a $9 billion deficit next year.

Rather than increasing aid and boosting support for schools, Albany is likely to cut state contributions sharply.

Bob Lowry, with the New York State Council on School Superintendents, says districts are worried that they could get squeezed from both sides.

"Heavily state-aid dependant districts, it's quite alarming," Lowry said. 

"To be facing the prospect of state aid cuts, continuing cost increases for things like pensions and insurance, and potentially a reduced ability to raise money locally."

One of the North Country districts that finds itself in that funding vice is Newcomb, a tiny rural district in Essex County. 

"It is going to be a very, very difficult year for all schools," said superintendent Skip Hults. 

Hults says his school is like a lot of North Country districts which have cut costs for several years in a row – and can’t cut more without affecting core education.

 "We have one teacher per grade," he pointed out.  "So it's not like I can do anything so far as my staffing goes...so that's going to  mean [cutting] programs"

With the state Senate narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats, and with big special interest groups weighing in, sorting out all these ideas and passing a bill won’t be easy.  It could well be the first big test of the new governor’s term.

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