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Property Taxes

An electronic sign in front of Port Jefferson High School alerting residents about the referendum. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Alex Petroski

After months of passionate and at times heated debate, the Port Jefferson School District community has spoken.

Residents voted overwhelmingly against a $30 million capital bond proposal that carried an additional $10 million in interest over its 15-year life and included over 20 districtwide repair and upgrade projects. The issue garnered feverish local attention at numerous school board meetings and on social media forums since it was presented to the public by the district and board of education in September, driving more than 1,700 voters to the polls on referendum day Dec. 5. After all was said and done, 1,355 residents voted against the bond, with just 374 voting in favor of it. By comparison, just 412 people voted on the 2018 budget and school board vacancies back in May.

A lawn sign on Barnum Avenue encouraging residents to vote ‘No’ on a $30M PJSD bond proposal. Photo by Alex Petroski

The proposal featured a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school and lights for the Scraggy Hill Road athletic fields, among many more improvements. Some of the fixes — like additional girls locker room space and handicapped parking spaces at the high school track — were included to get the district in compliance with Title IX and the Americans with Disabilities Act and will likely need to be addressed either using the district’s capital reserves or a reworked bond proposal.

“While I am disappointed in the result, I am encouraged that so many residents took the time to vote,” district Superintendent Paul Casciano said in an email. “The district and our board of education will discuss the matter further at subsequent meetings. The safety, security and compliance concerns that we were attempting to address through the projects in the capital bond still exist and need attention.”

Many of those opposed to the bond pointed to the uncertainty surrounding an ongoing district and Port Jefferson Village lawsuit against Long Island Power Authority, as both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached. LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson Power Station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant. The district and village’s annual operating budgets are funded in large part due to that revenue. Others were also opposed to the “all or nothing” proposal, which included upgrades that were seen as imminently necessary alongside projects that were viewed as extravagant, like the stadium lights at the Scraggy Hill fields and a new synthetic playing surface for the varsity football field.

“I think the result demonstrates that the community is seeking more transparency and fiscal responsibility from the board and the administration,” said Rene Tidwell, a district resident who was vocal in her opposition to the proposal. “We as a community are eager to roll up our sleeves and help identify urgent projects to fix compliance issues and to help prioritize long-term projects.”

Tidwell said she was not previously as engaged in the goings on of the board of education prior to the emergence of the debate over the bond.

“There had been talk in the community about it and when I started looking closely at the information the board provided I ended up having more questions,” she said. “Many in the community felt there wasn’t a consistent resource or outreach to the entire community with respect to contributing input for what went into the bond proposal.”

Depending on the assessed value of a district resident’s home, the bond would have resulted in an increase of between $289 and $1,185 annually in property taxes, according to the district.

Port Jefferson Village Mayor Margot Garant publicly requested that the district hold off on bringing the proposal forward in September until a resolution was reached on the LIPA issue.

“Tonight’s heavy turnout and result reflects the engagement and passion of our community,” Garant said Dec. 5 via email. “They spoke to the board of education with resounding voices of concern over this bond proposal and while doing so, expressed their deep concern for the children in our school district, clearly stating their support for the ‘needs,’ and not the ‘wants’ in the proposal.”

File photo by Elana Glowatz

The fate of Port Jefferson School District’s $30 million bond proposal won’t be known until next week, but if informal assessments are accurate, the Dec. 5 vote is going to be close.

According to a nonscientific poll posted by TBR News Media on a Facebook page comprised of 1,355 users who identify as Port Jefferson Village residents, those sure they will vote to pass the $30 million, 15-year borrowing plan, which also carries a $10 million interest price tag, are equal to those not currently ready to cast a “yes” vote. As of 4 p.m. Nov. 28, of the 46 people who answered the poll, 23 said they planned to vote in favor. Fifteen responders said they planned to vote “no,” while eight said they weren’t yet sure how they would vote.

District administration presented the high-price capital bond proposal to the board of education and the public during a board meeting Sept. 12. If passed, the capital plan would feature a three-story addition to a wing of the high school, additional classrooms at the high school and elementary school, a turf football field at the high school, stadium lights for the elementary school fields, and many other improvements. The district’s total budget for the 2017-18 school year is about $43 million.

Bond proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

•$737K to install new ventilators in two wings of elementary school building

The district also conducted its own informal survey on its website that was up from mid-September to early October to gauge general feelings in the community about the bond, according to Superintendent Paul Casciano. The district’s survey was also considered unscientific, as it did not prohibit users from taking the survey multiple times, or require any verification that the person taking the survey lives in Port Jeff. The assessment was taken 324 times, and of those, 254 said they would describe the current state of the district’s facilities as “good” or “fair.” Of those who took the survey, 256 said they already pay at least $8,000 annually in property taxes.

In an effort to demonstrate roughly how much a homeowner’s tax bill would increase should the referendum pass, the district posted a “property tax calculator” on its website earlier this month, though the district notified residents by email Nov. 27 the function had a flaw that caused the property tax estimates to be lower than they will be in reality.

The service was set up in conjunction with Munistat Services Inc., a contracted company that provides advisement and estimates on school district borrowing and debt management to other districts and organizations.

“At our request, Munistat provided an estimate of state aid for our proposed capital bond project in September, and the district used this figure in bond presentations and the development of the estimated tax calculator for residents,” the district email said.

The email went on to explain that Munistat overestimated the district’s state aid by $400,000 per year, and the calculator had to be adjusted. Original tax increase estimates, which ranged from $198 to $997 per year, were changed to $239 to $1,185 per year.

“Needless to say, the district is disappointed that this inaccuracy occurred, but is thankful that this information became available to share with residents before our scheduled bond vote,” the district email said.

Although the district has held several informational meetings and building tours to show voters the specific projects slated for improvement as part of the bond, some residents have criticized the district for its methods of notifying the public about the vote, as well as the date selected.

“I don’t feel that is a fair criticism,” Casciano said in an email. The district began using the electronic sign in front of the high school to inform residents about the impending vote this week, according to the superintendent, and an automated phone message was made to homes in the district to make them aware of the final bond meeting Nov. 27.

“We have also informed the entire public through a variety of additional means: an information flyer, voter guide, postcards, community facility walkthroughs, public and board of education presentations that were streamed live, the district website, which includes all of the bond information that we have shared with the community, Facebook, and of course, frequent articles  which have been published since the beginning of September in The Port Times Record.”

Sean Leister, deputy superintendent; Fred Koelbel, facilities and operations administrator; and architect John Grillo discuss aspects of the bond with attendees of the walk-through. File photo by Alex Petroski

Those opposed to the early December vote cited the potential absence of a large number of “snowbirds” or Port Jeff homeowners who tend to spend winters in warmer climates, on the date of the vote. The thinking being those residents are likely the same people who no longer have children attending the district, and therefore would be less likely to support the massive spending plan. For these residents, absentee ballots were made available.

Since the district presented the proposal to the public, lengthy and regular back and forth discussions have ensued on the private, 1,355-member Facebook page, with a seemingly down-the-middle split developing amongst posters. Public meetings regarding the bond have not provided much clarity on how residents might vote Dec. 5 either.

Some of the major arguments from those intending to vote “no” have included an aversion to the installation of stadium lights on athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road; the inclusion of what many see as district “wants” mixed in with district “needs” among the more-than 20 line items in the bond; and the looming lawsuit which includes both the district and Port Jefferson Village as plaintiffs against the Long Island Power Authority. Both entities stand to potentially lose substantial tax revenue in the coming years should a settlement or decision in the LIPA case be reached, as LIPA has contended it pays too much in property taxes to operate the Port Jefferson power station, now that sweeping energy-efficiency upgrades have drastically reduced the regular need for the plant.

Those in favor of passing the bond have cited student safety concerns and the requirement to be completely compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act as the primary reason to vote “yes.”

“Keeping children safe and secure is our primary responsibility,” Casciano said. “This is not a responsibility that can be compromised and we believe the proposed projects will enable our district to continue to meet this mission while still remaining mindful of our commitment to the taxpayers.”

Polls will be open Dec. 5 from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at Earl L. Vandermeulen High School.

The referendum will appear on ballot as a single, all-or-nothing proposition

Port Jefferson high school could look very different in the coming years if a $30M bond proposal is approved by the community. File photo by Elana Glowatz

In Port Jefferson, 2017 will seemingly have a dramatic, down-to-the-wire election day just like it did in 2016, though this year it will be held in December instead of November.

The Port Jefferson School District Board of Education voted unanimously in support of a resolution to establish Dec. 5 as the date for the much-discussed and intensely debated $30 million bond referendum that has seemingly created a two-party system within the community: the Pro-Bond Party and the Anti-Bond Party.

Despite objections from some residents at prior board of education and Port Jefferson Village Board meetings, the date for the vote was set for the first Tuesday in December. The resolution to set the date was removed from the eight other items listed in the board consensus agenda under the category of finance after a motion by board Vice President Mark Doyle, so that the resolution to set the date could be voted on as individual item.

“At this moment in time both my husband and I are strongly inclined to vote ‘no’ on this bond, even though it’s great for the kids and the buildings.”

— Renee Tidwell

Those opposed to that date cited the potential absence of a large number of “snowbirds” or Port Jeff homeowners who tend to spend winters in warmer climates, on the date of the vote. The thinking being those residents are likely the same people who no longer have children attending the district, and therefore would be less likely to support the massive spending plan.

“We’ll discuss the best way of getting the word out and try to make the availability [of absentee ballots] a little bit easier than people might otherwise imagine, although it is relatively easy,” Superintendent Paul Casciano said during the Oct. 10 board meeting, when the date was finalized.

Casciano previously stated during one of the district’s several building walk-throughs, which were scheduled to allow residents the opportunity to tour the facilities slated for upgrades as part of the bond, that the December date was more preferable than attaching the proposition as part of the budget vote in June because the board felt it was important to allow the bond to stand on its own and not be lost as an afterthought to the budget.

Others who have voiced opposition to the bond have expressed concerns with voting on the more than 20 items as an all-or-nothing proposition and urged the board to split it into at least two propositions: one for education and safety upgrades and one for upgrades relating to athletics. The board elected to keep all 23 items and $29,900,000 worth of upgrades and improvements to district facilities intact as a single proposition.

Proposal highlights

•$7.6M to construct a three-story addition at PJHS

•$2.3M to construct new music room and instrumental practice room at PJHS

•$2.2M to build addition to PJHS cafeteria and renovate kitchen space

•$1.2M to replace windows at PJHS

•$2.5M to construct two additional classrooms at elementary school

•$1.7M for locker room renovations at PJHS

•$1.6M for installation of stadium lighting at Scraggy Hill fields

•$1.4M for a new synthetic turf football field at PJHS

•$3.7M to convert tech ed building to new central administration headquarters

•$1.6M to install drainage walls at north side of middle school building

“At this moment in time both my husband and I are strongly inclined to vote ‘no’ on this bond, even though it’s great for the kids and the buildings,” district resident Renee Tidwell said during the public comment portion of the meeting. “We want to vote ‘no,’ and we’re very troubled by that.”

Tidwell pointed to the inclusion of a synthetic turf football field and stadium lights at the athletic fields on Scraggy Hill Road included with health, safety and educational components in one proposition as a reason to vote against it.

“Split the bond into two bonds; one which addresses the urgent and critical capital improvements and infrastructure upgrades, and the other bond which could address less critical initiatives,” Tidwell said, prior to the vote, which eliminated that possibility.

Deputy Superintendent Sean Leister suggested it’s possible the district might have legal ways out of the bond agreement should an extenuating circumstance arise, such as a settlement in the district’s lawsuit against the Long Island Power Authority, which could cause the district to lose substantial property tax revenue, prior to borrowing the money. Leister said previously that projects and borrowing would be unlikely to begin prior to 2019.

Based on discussions during several public meetings and conversations taking place on Port Jefferson-related Facebook pages, the community seems to be split down the middle roughly two months away from the vote. Results of a survey that was available on the district’s website are expected in the coming weeks, and Leister has also promised an imminently available property tax calculator so that residents can see about how much the proposal would cost individual households if passed. This tax hike would be unrelated to potential raises as a result of the LIPA lawsuit and/or if next year’s budget were to ask for an increase. Casciano has also promised more walk-throughs, including a virtual tour for those unable to attend in person.

Smithtown Supervisor Pat Vecchio presented the town's 2018 tentative operating budget this week. File photo by Susan Risoli

Smithtown homeowners may find themselves in an enviable position as Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) looks to cut taxes for the second straight year.

Vecchio presented his $105 million 2018 proposed Smithtown Town budget at a brief 46-second special town board meeting Oct. 3. There was no public discussion of the budget, as town board members were seeing the nearly 200-page document for the first time.

“Ostensibly, the proposed budget is now theirs; the [town board] can change it or do anything with it they would like,” Vecchio said. “My experience is that they’ve never changed it.”

Overall, the proposed budget contains an increase of $2 million over the 2017 budget, but will reduce the town taxes for the average homeowner by $1.05, down from $1,269.88 per year to $1,268.83 per year for a home with an assessed value of $5,500. It falls well under the state tax cap of 1.84 percent.

Vecchio said he prepared a structurally balanced budget in which incoming revenues match the recurring expenditures, a measure he achieved by implementing cost cutting initiatives and long-range planning.

First and foremost, the supervisor pointed to careful control of town employees’ salaries.

“We have not replaced employees who have retired,” the supervisor said. “When we do rehire employees, we rehire them at a lower salary.”

While positions have been lost through attrition, the 2018 budget does not call for the layoff of any existing town personnel.

Smithtown town officials also gradually implemented a new policy of leasing
vehicles used by various departments, such as parks and highways, instead of outright purchasing them.

“It’s saved us a lot of money,” Vecchio said. “There’s a big outlay when purchasing a vehicle for a municipality, plus then there’s maintenance.”

Other cost-saving measures taken by the town include replacing streetlights with LED lights and sharing services for emergency dispatching, according to the supervisor.

The proposed budget has set aside $4.4 million for the 2018 road program, which in addition to $1.1 million in state funding, will allow for road improvements and repaving over the upcoming year.

Vecchio said the town is in a good fiscal position with a Triple A bond rating and a $17 million surplus in its general fund.

“What’s the benefit, residents might ask, of having a $17 million surplus?” he said. “The benefit of having that money in surplus is your bond rating. Your interest rates on bonds are always lower when you
have reserves.”

The supervisor has proposed allocating $600,000 of the town’s surplus funds towards the highway budget to supplement continued roadway improvements. A similar measure was approved in the 2017 budget which appropriated $602,000 for roadways and later approved $2 million specifically for improvements to Lake
Avenue in Smithtown.

A public hearing on the 2018 proposed budget will be held at the town board meeting on Oct. 26 at 7 p.m. at Town Hall. Residents can review a line-by-line budget breakdown on the town’s website at www.smithtownny.gov.

Funding would increase for snow removal, environment

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine wants to maintain the town’s AAA credit rating, and the 2017 tentative operating budget reflects that. File photo by Erika Karp

By Giselle Barkley & Elana Glowatz

Brookhaven Town won’t ask for more money from residents next year, according to Supervisor Ed Romaine’s 2016 budget proposal.

Romaine (R) revealed his nearly $281 million budget plan at a meeting on Oct. 1, touting its benefits of complying with the state-imposed limit on property tax increases and putting more funding toward snow removal as the winter season approaches.

Crafting the budget was a challenge given the tight limit on how much the property tax levy could increase, according to Romaine — the state’s limit was 0.73 percent this year. Despite that, “I support the tax cap because I understand what the tax burden is on the taxpayers of this town,” Romaine said during a meeting with the press last week. “I’m trying to do my best to limit that tax burden while providing needed services and that’s crucial, and our five-year plan reflects that.”

According to the budget proposal, the town’s property tax levy will not see a net increase in 2016, holding taxes steady for many residents. Romaine was able to maintain the levy because of the amount of money the town will save from satisfying debts. Some of the money that would have gone toward those debt payments was used instead to fund increases in other budget lines. When money from the town’s debt reserve fund is excluded, the budget proposal actually reduces overall spending more than $800,000.

“That’s come from careful management of capital projects and the elimination of pipeline debt,” Finance Commissioner Tamara Wright said during the meeting.

Just as there were cuts in the budget, there were also additions. Romaine proposed bringing the highway department’s snow removal budget up to $5.2 million — a budget line the supervisor and the town board have been adding to since the massive February 2013 storm, frequently dubbed Nemo, that buried Long Island under three feet of dense snow. That removal budget has doubled in the last few years.

“I hope that someday we will have a less snowy winter,” Romaine said.

Town officials hope any leftover snow removal money will be deposited into a reserve account, to be used in an emergency winter weather situation.

The supervisor’s proposal also increases spending on environmental protection and funding for public safety staff, code enforcement and internal auditors, among others.

Romaine’s proposed capital budget totals $62.2 million, a reduction of about 2.4 percent from the current year. The capital funds will go toward local projects like long-awaited athletic fields in Selden and road and drainage improvements.

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Port Jefferson is fighting to keep property tax revenue flowing from the power plant. File photo by Erika Karp

Port Jefferson Village moved another chess piece in its match against the Long Island Power Authority last week, filing a lawsuit to dispute the utility’s property tax challenges from the last few years, which are still pending in court.

Village Attorney Brian Egan said at the board of trustees meeting Tuesday night that the village filed the lawsuit last Friday contending LIPA had promised not to challenge its property tax assessment at the Port Jefferson power plant unless the assessment was disproportionately increased.

That perceived promise links back to a 1997 letter from former LIPA chairman Richard Kessel, upon inking a power supply agreement between LIPA and the Long Island Lighting Company, as the former was taking over for the latter. That agreement covered power plants now owned and operated by energy company National Grid, which includes those in Port Jefferson and Northport.

Back then LIPA and local municipalities were embroiled in other tax assessment challenges. Kessel’s letter said the utility would drop those challenges and would not “initiate any further tax certiorari cases on any of their respective properties at any time in the future unless a municipality abusively increases its assessment rate.”

Port Jefferson has actually gone in the opposite direction on the neighborhood power plant’s assessment, officials confirmed Tuesday — LIPA’s assessment was only proportionately increased over time, and since it began challenging its assessment in 2010, it has in fact seen a decrease. Officials called that 10 percent decrease an act of good faith as they negotiated with the utility on the matter.

At the heart of the issue is a disagreement over the worth of the local power plant: LIPA contends it is grossly overassessed, forcing the utility to pay more in property taxes than it should.

The power plant is a large source of tax revenue for the area, particularly the Port Jefferson school district and the village. Smaller stakeholders include the Port Jefferson fire and library districts and the Town of Brookhaven.

As LIPA’s property tax challenges trickle through the court system, Port Jefferson’s latest lawsuit piggybacks on an idea from out west — Huntington Town and the Northport-East Northport school district filed a similar suit a couple of years ago in their battle on the Northport power plant, which mirrors the situation in Port Jefferson. That inceptive lawsuit, challenging LIPA’s ability to challenge its property tax assessment, faced a motion to dismiss that New York State’s highest court recently denied — allowing the case to play out. Seeing the ruling in favor of Huntington and Northport, Port Jefferson followed suit.

“I feel very strong,” Egan said about the case.

According to the village attorney, he will ask that court action on LIPA’s tax challenges be delayed until the new lawsuit is resolved.

The Port Jefferson and Huntington area lawsuits may also be joined, and it is possible more plaintiffs, such as Brookhaven Town and the Port Jefferson school district, could jump in.

At the time the courts denied LIPA’s motion to dismiss Huntington Town and the Northport school district’s lawsuit, a LIPA spokesperson said the utility does not comment on ongoing litigation.

If the municipalities win their lawsuits regarding LIPA’s right to challenge its property tax assessments, those pending challenges would be thrown out.

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