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Editorial: Poloncarz's good idea

You have to start somewhere. Even if it does nothing more than to provoke a debate, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz has done something valuable to help control costs faced by taxpayers here. Given the low-impact/reasonable return on his proposal, though, his push should do more than just produce talk. It should spark action.

Noting that school district and special district taxes make up the majority of property taxes paid by county residents, Poloncarz is agitating for an easy, common-sense move to help restrain the size of those tax bills: He wants areas such as Cheektowaga – which, preposterously, is home to five school districts – to consolidate their administrations. What’s the downside?

Schools would remain open as part of his idea. Sports teams would remain identified with their schools. Teachers and principals wouldn’t lose their jobs. But senior management would decrease and become less costly. In some areas, other efficiencies, such as purchasing, would also lower public expenses. Cheektowaga districts already collaborate on expenses such as health insurance, school supplies and energy.

And there is a flip side: As school enrollments decline, teachers will be put at risk. Taxpayers can help protect those positions by ensuring that administrative costs aren’t unnecessarily high.

Pursued in Cheektowaga, and in other over-supplied areas in the county, Poloncarz sees million of dollars of savings in the first year. He observed, for example that while the Williamsville school district serves 1,000 more students than the five Cheektowaga districts combined, it spends $2.3 million less in administrative costs.

This is not a cure-all for the high costs of education in New York. That problem is better counted in the tens of millions of dollars, but this is an easy and obvious way to begin the work of rationalizing a system that was built for a different time.

If that is true of school districts, it also applies to specialty districts. Think fire protection. The county’s multiplicity of fire districts dates to a time when distances and transportation times made them necessary.

That’s not true now and, as a recent story in The News documented, homeowners’ costs of supporting those districts can be wildly different. Along Schoelles Road in Amherst, for example, one resident found that he pays $538 a year more in fire district taxes than a neighbor across the street does for a property assessed $40,000 more than his. The reason: Schoelles Road marks the dividing line between fire districts.

Why do residents need to put up with these kinds of expenses when they can be reduced, and by significant amounts? There is no reason, but few people in authority have been willing to make an issues of it and to demand change. Poloncarz is and, if push comes to shove, he’s got leverage, at least regarding school districts.

Erie is one of only six counties in the state that shares sales tax revenues with school districts, and at 18 percent of the total, it’s a significant amount. He’s not threatening to withdraw that support – yet. He called that his “nuclear option,” one he seems not to want to employ, but wants districts to know it’s available.

We hope it doesn’t come to that, but school districts are well into self-preservation. Even overburdened taxpayers seem to prefer maintaining costly education structures that provide a sense of community.

Poloncarz’s proposal will retain that community aspect while reducing administration costs. He should push this plan, using all tools necessary.

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