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School budgets face first vote under tax cap; State's new limit on suburban districts applies to levy, which can rise over 2%

Today, suburban voters across the state will consider, for the first time, school budgets proposed under the state's simple 2 percent tax cap.

Of course, this isn't simple.

It's not 2 percent.

And it's not exactly a cap.

Here's a quick guide for those trying to make sense out of what can be a rather complicated and confusing system for those without a law degree:

>Q: So does this mean my tax bill can't go up more than 2 percent?

A: No.

Here's why:

*The "cap" isn't really a cap.

Any school district can still raise taxes any amount -- but if a district wants to raise taxes more than an amount determined by a state formula, that district needs a greater percentage of voters to approve its budget. (See details later in story.)

The cap, as it is, refers to a district's tax levy. That's the total amount a district collects in taxes.

That's different from your individual tax bill.

A district's tax levy is in the millions of dollars. Once a district determines how much it needs to raise overall through its tax levy, then that amount is divided by the assessed value of all the properties in the district.

Even if your district were to keep its total tax levy flat this year, meaning no increase or decrease from last year, your individual tax bill could still go up or down.

Your tax bill might go up, even with a flat tax levy, if the assessment on your house went up, meaning local officials decided the value of your house increased.

Your tax bill could go down if, for example, you live in a district whose tax base is growing, meaning there are more properties to spread the tax levy across.

>Q: Why are some tax levies increasing more than 2 percent?

A: What was billed as a 2 percent tax cap is actually different for each school district. Each district calculates its own cap.

In most districts, it will be more than 2 percent -- the local average tax levy increase is actually about 3.2 percent. In some districts, though, the cap is less than 1 percent.

The specific number for each district is based on a formula provided by the state. That formula takes into account the amount of growth in the district, payments in lieu of taxes, certain increases in pension payments, previously approved capital projects and court-ordered judgments.

After this year, districts also will be able to carry over up to 1.5 percent of the unused tax levy growth from the previous year.

>Q: How many votes are needed to approve the budget?

A: Budgets that seek to raise the tax levy -- the total amount to be raised by taxes -- more than the tax cap for that district need the votes of at least 60 percent of those voting today.

Budgets with tax increases at or below the tax cap will require a simple majority of 50 percent plus one vote.

>Q: Is my district trying to override the tax cap?

A: Only four local districts are trying to override the tax cap: Holland, Niagara Wheatfield, Wyoming and Bemus Point. Every other district in Western New York has proposed a budget that stays within its cap.

>Q: What happens if voters do not approve a budget today?

A: If voters do not approve a district's proposed budget, the school board may adopt a contingency budget or propose a second budget. If voters defeat a second budget, the district must adopt a contingency budget.

A contingency budget puts some limits on spending, including some equipment purchases and the use of school buildings and grounds by outside organizations. New regulations this year also prohibit any increase in the tax levy in a contingency budget.

>Q: I live in Buffalo. How come I'm not voting on my school budget today?

A: As one of the five largest school districts in the state, Buffalo falls under a different set of laws. The school district itself cannot decide to collect more money by raising taxes on local property owners.

Buffalo is what's known as a "dependent district," meaning it does not levy its own taxes, unlike suburban districts. The Buffalo Public Schools receive less than 10 percent of their revenue from local property taxes, but those taxes are levied by the City of Buffalo, rather than the school district. The city sets the tax rate and decides how much to give to the schools.

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