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Spending is dominant in district

Responsible spending seemed to be the predominant theme this week at the Niagara Wheatfield Central School District budget public hearing and candidates forum.

Many speakers at the hearing mentioned it, and most of the School Board candidates touched on the subject that the district, which was once in possession of a healthy reserve fund, now finds itself about $8.2 million short.

The nearly $61.8 million budget the board is asking the public to approve on May 15 is nearly 2 percent lower than this year, but it will carry an estimated tax increase of 9.9 percent and will eliminate about 50 positions to contribute toward nearly $4.1 million in cuts.

Dan Maerten, of Niagara Road, who was a School Board candidate last year, remarked that the property tax numbers disseminated by the district are deceptive. He added that in his plumbing business he visits many homes and has determined that any type of tax increase is very hard on the elderly and would result in home sales.

According to budget figures, the average tax rate for 2012-13 should be $18.50 per $1,000 based on true property value.

Interim School Superintendent Kerin Dumphrey, who has managed the district finances since 1993 as business manager, countered all the claims by attributing the discrepancy to the state STAR exemption, which he said has eroded every year since 2006.

Dumphrey also said state and federal aid have gone down at least $5 million since 2008, including the federal stimulus jobs money that paid for 24 positions.

Perhaps his main point was that the board decided to continue to spend the reserve funds and fund balance in order to tell residents that it kept the tax hike at zero percent. He also blamed the State Comptroller's Office for alarming districts a few years ago that fund balance accounts could not be too high and needed to be spent.

School Board President Steven Sabo backed up Dumphrey's explanation by saying he has a past memo from Dumphrey in which the board is warned not to use the reserves.

The candidates all mentioned the financial dilemma and said the district needed to stay on the right course, as difficult as it may be.

Sabo, who was elected to a one-year term last year, said he set out to put the district on the right track to become financially viable. He said it is "starting to head in the right direction" and he wanted to make sure the job is completed.

The other incumbent, Kristin MacKenzie, who has been on the board for three years, noted that in the face of the financial issues, it is was difficult to make education better. She said the selection of a new superintendent is one of the most important tasks left for the board.

Newcomer Richard Sirianni said he has been attending board meetings for the last 2 1/2 years and stressed that his 26 years as a union officer would be an asset to the district. The top two vote-getters will receive seats of two-year terms.

Because the budget is calling for a tax increase that is higher than the adjusted tax cap of 7 percent, it needs to pass by 60 percent of voters. If it goes down, the board can submit a second budget for voters to decide. If it fails a second time, a budget with a zero percent increase automatically takes effect.