School-budget recap: Low turnout, more overrides

| Poughkeepsie Journal

ALBANY — The school-budget votes this year included more property-tax-cap overrides and a drop in voter turnout, a report from a school group showed.

The tax cap has led to a steep drop in turnout for school budget votes: down 40 percent since 2010, the report this week from the state Association of School Business Officials found.

This year, 99 percent of school budgets passed on the first vote May 17. Just 10 of the state’s nearly 700 school districts had their budgets fail.

Meanwhile, 36 districts sought to override the property-tax cap, which allowed for taxes to grow just 0.12 percent for the fiscal year that starts July 1. An override requires a public vote of 60 percent or more.

The report said 28 of the override attempts were successful, and eight failed.

Michael Borges, the group’s executive director, said the cap has squeezed districts and 28 of them had a negative tax cap because of the way the state formula is written.

“This year’s near-zero tax cap forced districts to seek overrides just to make minimal levy increases, or even to avoid a negative tax cap,” Borges said in a statement. “Districts should not have to achieve supermajority approval to meet such modest requests.”

On a second vote June 21, only three districts’ budgets failed — Florida in the Hudson Valley; Tuckahoe Common on Long Island and Waverly in the Southern Tier.

They each sought a second attempt to override the cap, which was put into law in 2011.

The number of overrides rose from 19 last year to the 36 this year due to the low cap — which has fallen from 2 percent in 2012 to nearly 0 percent this year because it’s tied to the rate of inflation.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state leaders have praised the cap as limiting the growth in property taxes in one of the most expensive states to live in the country.

The low voter turnout is a sign that the cap is working, said E.J. McMahon, president of the Empire Center, a fiscally conservative think tank in Albany.

Voter turnout fell from 982,000 statewide in 2010 to 578,000 in May, the school group said.

If a district stays under the cap, voters are content with the budget plan and may stay home, McMahon said. Controversial budget votes are the ones that usually draw the most attention, he said.

“It’s kind of a sign of a success of the cap,” McMahon said. “If the word is out that, ‘Well, not much changing,’ then people don’t see a necessity in voting.’

Borges said high-need rural districts continue to seek the most overrides, and the most overrides were sought in the Southern Tier — a region that also had the most budgets defeated this year.

School groups have pressed for changes to the tax cap, such as not requiring a supermajority to override it and not tying it to the inflation rate.

But those attempts have been unsuccessful at the Capitol.

“Such modifications would ensure that students receive the support they need at a cost taxpayers can afford,” Borges said.

© 2016 Poughkeepsie Journal