Residents and Officials Voice Concern About Cuomo's Consolidation Proposal

cuomo3Governor Cuomo's latest proposal to force local municipalities and school districts to consolidate is causing concern among Scarsdale school administrators, the Board of Education, residents, the Village Manager and even the Mayor.

Under the proposal, which was unveiled in Cuomo's State of the State address on January 22, the Governor is recommending a two-year property-tax freeze for homeowners if their local governments and school districts meet two conditions: 1) Stay within the tax-levy cap both years and 2) implement a shared services or administrative consolidation plan that saves 1 percent of the levy a year for three years. Homeowners who earn less than $500,000 per year and live in districts where both the school and village comply with the mandate, would qualify for a tax rebate. Current estimates project that qualifying homeowners would receive an annual rebate of between $150 to $350.

The measure's intent is to reduce the number of municipal governments and school districts across the state by offering taxpayers incentives to force their local governments to consolidate and cost-save. For example, if the Scarsdale School District were to participate, it would form a consortium with the largest school in our regional district, which is New Rochelle, share services and potentially eliminate duplication to save money.

Administrators and educators who lead local schools and governments are already feeling the heat from two years of budgeting to the state-imposed tax cap. This new move is seen by some as yet another state mandate in the absence of any reforms to address pension and retirement costs, state testing costs, special education costs and other mandates that have squeezed local budgets. As School Board member Mary Beth Gose said, "Some suspect that Cuomo is pandering to voting blocs and using this proposal to extend the tax cap."

Speaking at the Scarsdale School Board meeting on Monday night January 27, Art Rublin and Diane Greenwald of the Coalition for Scarsdale Schools, said, "There are serious concerns about the threat posed by the proposal from Governor Cuomo. " It "compounds challenges for schools" who will need to "either forgo revenue or seek an override." Quoting the NYS School Boards Association, Rublin said, "Schools will be unable to continue services without exceeding the tax cap."

Greenwald continued, saying, "We are not sure how much more savings can be squeezed out of school districts. The Governor's proposal is dangerous given the high percentage of local taxes that contribute to our local revenues... We all want to protect what we have built."

Scarsdale Village Manager Al Gatta was also skeptical about the possible effects of forcing consolidation. He said, "In regard to the 2% cap on the property tax levy, we have been informed by the State Controller's Office that the Village of Scarsdale's cap for the 2014-2015 budget is 1.48%. This information makes the already challenging task of staying within the cap for the 2014-2015 budget much more difficult. After a number of years of adhering to the cap and as the smaller communities begin to show the impacts from the service reductions and deteriorating infrastructure, these communities, by default, may have no alternative other than to merge services and even consolidate with the larger jurisdictions."

Consolidation and merger as a matter of public policy in itself can have benefit, but it is prudent to look at impacts on quality of resulting programs and to analyze end costs. In a sense to force a consolidation or a program merger as a means of addressing the overburdened property tax may prove disappointing by not bringing better service levels or the expected decreases in property tax levies.

If the use of the property tax were the problem, would it not be better to address the matter as a tax issue and explore ways to more fairly and equitably fund local governments? Tax reform and how to fund local governments seems to me to be a more straightforward approach in dealing with the property tax problem, rather than forcing situations where communities make decisions that may not result in better government or quality of life for residents."

However, State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin emphasized that this is an opt-in program and participation is not AmyPaulin2013mandatory. She argued that only those villages and school districts who would benefit from the program would participate. As only a subset of Scarsdale taxpayers would qualify for the $350 checks many in Scarsdale would see no financial benefit from a program that would mean major changes to their Village services and schools. She said, "If the threshold is too high, districts will not want to comply." She also said that the state budget has just been proposed and that legislators will assess the reaction of their constituents and negotiate with the Governor during February and March.

During a discussion about the proposal at the Monday night BOE meeting, Board President Suzanne Seiden said she met with Scarsdale's Mayor Robert Steves and they came up with the idea of issuing a joint statement in objection to the consolidation proposal. At the end of the night, the Board of Ed agreed to work on a joint statement between the Scarsdale Village Board and Scarsdale School Board stating their concerns about the measure.

Learn more about this issue on the Scarsdale PT Coucil webpage here: