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Tax Levy Cap

Huntington residents wearing “Pierce the Cap” shirts cheer after the town board votes to pierce the tax levy cap for the 2017 budget. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By Victoria Espinoza

Huntington residents were unanimous at the town board meeting Tuesday night: Pierce the tax levy cap for the 2017 budget and keep our programs. And the town board agreed.

The proposed 2017 budget comes in at $190 million, with a tax levy increase of 2.85 percent, which would cost residents approximately $18 to $30 more per household, town spokesperson A.J. Carter said in a phone interview.

Town hall was packed with union, youth program and nonprofit members asking the board to support them in this year’s budget proposal.

Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) said at the town board meeting if Huntington is to stay within the state set tax levy cap of 0.68 percent for this year, the town’s workforce would decline; arts and youth programs would have to be cut; and parks and beaches would see a reduction in services and programs they offer.

“It’s not just a couple of bucks less for culture and arts. If we cut [funding] down, Huntington suffers. It’s millions of dollars out of the pockets of local residents.” —Ken Katz

“We committed ourselves to these programs because people are not traveling like they did — the economy is such that they are staying home and we felt it is our responsibility to … provide programs that would be cultural and recreational in nature, and social programs that help catch people in a safety net,” he said.

Jolena Smith, a Huntington High School student and member of the Tri Community Youth Agency, a not-for-profit organization that offers educational, recreational, social, cultural, athletics, counseling and advocacy programs for the town’s youth, became emotional when speaking about why it’s so important to her that the board pierce the cap this year and maintain Tri CYA funding.

“The Tri CYA provides all types of programs, services and activities to the youth that don’t have other choices or places to go,” she said at the meeting. “I’ve been coming to the Tri CYA for as long as I can remember, and it means a lot to me. The staff is an extended family. The Tri CYA helps kids stay off the streets. It helped me be the person I am today.”

Alicia Lawrence, president of the Tri CYA, talked about all the opportunities the not-for-profit offers to kids in town.

“Our staff is compassionate and professional,” Lawrence said. “They know the kids, they know the families and they know the community. They resolve problems before they escalate.”

Tri CYA offers numerous classes including cooking, reading and homework help, as well as provide students with school supplies, winter jackets and meals. The president said many of the children they work with are “at or below the poverty level.”

Ken Katz, a Huntington resident and member of the board of directors at the Cinema Arts Centre, also talked about how crucial funding from the town is for the survival of the CAC, a nonprofit organization that helps provide programs for students and seniors, as well as support many other local businesses.

“It’s not just a couple of bucks less for culture and arts,” he said. “If we cut [funding] down, Huntington suffers, not the Cinema Arts Centre. It’s not just going to a museum and seeing one less painting. It’s millions of dollars out of the pockets of local residents.”

Nonprofits were not the only voices heard. William Hennessey, president of Local 342 Long Island Public Service Employees, a union for workers in retail and wholesale food service, distribution, delivery and health care, spoke about the dangers of reducing the town workforce.

“[Local 342] represents many of the town employees residing in the town of Huntington,” he said. “If the staffing levels were to be substantially reduced due to budget cuts, the level of service that the residents of this town have become accustomed to would be severely reduced.” Hennessey used Hurricane Sandy as an example of when town employees worked “around the clock in 12-hour shifts” to help residents stay safe.

The board unanimously voted to approve the resolution to pierce the tax cap, to a round of applause from the audience, and the 2017 preliminary budget was passed out to the town board members.

According to Carter, Petrone said when he began the 2017 budget process this summer, he realized how much the town would have to cut to stay within the 0.68 percent state-mandated cap for this year. So instead, he drafted a second budget, which would pierce the cap. The budget holds social, youth and art programs at 2016 funding levels; there are no freezes on salaries for elected and appointed officials and union workers; and there are no layoffs, Carter said.

Supervisor Frank Petrone says staying within cap will force town to cut art and youth programs

Supervisor Frank Petrone receives the 2016 budget last year. File photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington residents have the chance to weigh in on possible tax increases for the coming year, as Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) set a public hearing on a proposal authorizing the board to adopt a 2017 budget that would pierce the state tax cap if passed.

This year’s tax levy cap is set at 0.68 percent, and according to town spokesperson A.J. Carter, town employees’ health care costs alone would pierce that tax cap.

The state cap limits the amount a municipality can increase its tax levy, which is the total amount collected in taxes, from budget to budget. While commonly referred to as a “two percent tax cap,” it actually limits levy increases to 2 percent or the rate of inflation — whichever is lower — before certain excluded spending, like on capital projects and pension payments.

Carter said staying within the tax cap would require the town to cut arts and youth programs.

Petrone said when he began the 2017 budget process this summer, he realized how much the town would have to cut to stay within the cap, and started to draft a second budget that Carter said would cost residents approximately $18 to $30 more per household.

At the town board meeting on Aug. 16, Petrone and the board scheduled a public hearing at the Sept. 27 town board meeting to get a feel for how community members would receive the potential increase.

“What we want is a clear direction from the public,” Carter said in a phone interview. “Does the public want us to preserve our existing programs or not?”

Carter said the board will decide at the September meeting if the town will go ahead with either the budget that stays within the tax cap, or the one that pierces it, depending on feedback from the public.

Councilman Gene Cook (R) has disagreed in the past with how Petrone handles the town’s budget, and said he wants to hear how the public feels about a proposed budget that pierces the tax levy cap.

“I am definitely not for it,” Cook said in a phone interview. “I would like to do anything to avoid tax increases. But I am willing to listen to what the public thinks.”

Last year the board passed a roughly $188.7 million budget, which was a 1.3 percent increase in the town’s tax levy, and about a $29 increase for the average homeowner. Overall spending decreased by 0.2 percent.

Superintendent Diana Todaro and Assistant Superintendent Francesco Ianni were both delighted the budget passed. File photo

Tuesday night was a success for school districts in the Huntington area, with all budgets approved, including Harborfields’ cap-piercing $82.8 million budget.

Throughout budget season, Assistant Superintendent for Administration and Human Resources Franceso Ianni had presented the board with several options for the 2016-17 budget. Some stayed within the 0.37 percent state–mandated tax levy cap, but did not offer programs the community had been asking for, like full-day kindergarten. Others included such programs but went above and beyond the cap. After much debate, the board adopted a nearly $83 million budget with a cap-busting 1.52 percent increase to the tax levy.

Among the costs in the budget are $600,000 for full-day kindergarten, $70,000 for a BOCES cultural arts program, $52,000 for a third-grade orchestra program and $120,000 for an additional special education teacher and two teaching assistants.

Harborfields residents have been vocal about wanting full-day kindergarten on the budget and one group, Fair Start: Harborfields Residents for Full-Day Kindergarten, traveled to Albany to seek help from state legislators on making it possible.

Rachael Risinger, a member of Fair Start, said she and the organization are elated to see a budget pass with full-day kindergarten on the menu.

“We are extremely thankful the Harborfields community came together to pass this year’s school budget,” she said in an email. “Kindergarten orientation was this week and we’ve heard from so many parents how excited their young kids are to go to full-day kindergarten starting in September. Now they will have the same fair start as every kindergarten student on Long Island.”

The district needed a 60 percent supermajority to override the cap in its budget, and with 2,099 votes in favor and 1,017 votes against, the supermajority was achieved.

Superintendent Diana Todaro said she is pleased with the outcome.

“It’s a budget that supports and meets the needs of all of our children, from kindergarten through the high school,” she said. “We just want to thank our community, parents, staff members and especially the board of education who supported us throughout this entire process.”

Ianni, who will be taking over for Todaro in 2017 as superintendent, said he is excited to work with the programs in this budget next year. “I’m very exited and pleased for the students and the community, [for] all the programs that we’re going to have,” he said. “I’m really excited [to go] into the new school year as the new superintendent in January, [with] these kinds of programs in place.”

Incumbent Hansen Lee and newcomer Colleen Wolcott were also voted in as school board members for the upcoming year, with 1,569 and 1,301 votes, respectively.

“I am extremely excited about the passing of this historic budget, and how the community came together for all of our kids,” Lee said. “[And] I am excited about my second term and [am] looking forward to more exciting things to come at Harborfields.”

Wolcott said she is eager to get started.

“I’m very excited to serve my community more than I have already been doing,” she said. “It is my honor. I’m excited to have a voice on the board of education and to work collaboratively with the district to make it better than it already is.”

Challengers Chris Kelly (1,001 votes), Marge Acosta (992 votes) and Joseph Savaglio (571 votes) fell short in their own bids.

Harborfields Superintendent Francesco Ianni. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Harborfields Board of Education members were unanimous that it is the right time to pierce the 0.37 percent tax levy cap.

At the March 5 board meeting, trustees agreed that the approximate $82.7 million budget, with a tax levy of 2.66 percent, is the best option for the district, because of the programs it would provide, including full day kindergarten, an additional librarian, and a third-grade strong program.

Referred to as Option 3 in the district’s presentation, this budget would require a 60 percent super majority vote and would not include New York State tax rebates for any residents.

“We are not being greedy,” Trustee Suzie Lustig said at the meeting. “We are being reasonable and our government has given us an unreasonable and unfair task of trying to fund this budget. We’re not putting in excessive electives. We are doing what is necessary for all of our children in grades k through 12 and that would be supporting Option 3.”

Option 3 is approximately $1.4 million more than the allowable tax levy budget for 2016-17, and costs include $120,000 for an additional special education teacher and two teacher’s assistants, $70,000 for a BOCES cultural art program and $600,000 for full day kindergarten.

Earlier this month, the district presented three options for next year’s budget.

Option 1, about $81.3 million, stays within the 0.37 percent tax levy of cap and would require cuts, as it comes in below what a rollover budget would cost the district.

Option 2 reflects a tax levy of 0.84 percent, and costs about $289,000 more than Option 1. It provides co-curricular activities at Oldfield Middle School and Harborfields High School, two additional teachers for grades k through six, and more.

Board members also agreed that the small tax rebate for the next year is another reason piercing the cap is favorable.

“Given the smaller amount of rebates that will be available next year, it would be less costly to pierce it this year than in the years that follow,” Trustee Nicholas P. Giuliano said at the meeting.

According to the budget presentation, the state tax rebate for 2016-17 is a uniform sum of $130, regardless of each homeowner’s gross income — with the exception of homeowners in the district who make more than $275,000, who do not receive a rebate.

Option 1 is the only budget where some residents would receive a tax rebate. But board members pointed out that the 2016-17 rebate is hundreds of dollars lower than years past.

“To me this year is the perfect storm,” Lustig said. “We have the lowest tax cap levy we’ve ever had; it’s practically zero. There will be only $130 for the rebate for those who qualify, and perhaps a big portion of our community may not get any type of rebate next year.”

Assistant Superintendent for Administration and Human Resources Francesco Ianni gave the presentation, and said that the district is still waiting to see if they will receive full restoration of the Gap Elimination Adjustment, which would help offset the costs for a budget with all the programs the community desires.

Some residents concerned as village votes to allow larger budget increase

Port Jeff Village is asking residents to use the online parking sticker portal. File photo by Elana Glowatz

Port Jefferson Village officials have a green light to override the state’s cap on its tax levy next year, if necessary.

The board of trustees voted 4-1, with Trustee Bruce Miller dissenting, to allow themselves to pierce the cap — as the group has done each year since the state law restricting tax levy increases was enacted.

In the next budget cycle, the village has a 1.68 percent state-imposed cap on its tax levy increase, according to Treasurer Don Pearce. But tentative budget figures would increase the levy — and thus taxes — by 4 percent.

The latter increase would translate to the average Port Jefferson homeowner paying about $37 more next year in village property taxes.

During a public hearing on the matter Monday night, a few residents railed against the prospect of busting through the cap.

“This is just not tolerable,” Molly Mason said about tax increases.

And Matthew Franco pointed to what he saw as wasteful expenditures, such as what the village spent on exploring uses for the Port Jefferson marina, which it had hoped to purchase from Brookhaven Town before the deal fell through. He spoke against the officials’ idea “to come to us and say, ‘Look, we want to go over the cap again.’”

According to Pearce, the tentative budget totals almost $10.3 million. In order to meet the levy cap, instead of piercing it, the village would have to shave more than $140,000 in expenses or bring up revenues that amount.

Mayor Margot Garant said the board would work to reduce that sum, what she called a “gap.” She also noted that the village uses $400,000 from its fund balance each year to keep down resident taxes, a measure she said the village would take again next year.

During recent budget workshops, the board has pored over budget lines, slashing more than $300,000 in proposed expenses. The trustees have also contended with increases in mandated expenditures.

“I don’t know many businesses that go year to year with only a 1.68 percent increase in expenditures,” Trustee Larry LaPointe said. “If you’ve got a union contract, which we do, and there are built-in increases to all your employees’ salaries in that union contract, you’re going to have budget increases unless you fire people and reduce services.”

He added that he did not think there would be resident support for reducing services.

The village will hold a public hearing on a finalized 2015-16 budget on April 15.