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School district taxes affected little by cap

The state's new 2 percent property tax cap had little effect on how much school districts actually increased their revenues in budgets for next year.

Thanks to several exclusions to the new law, 575 districts out of 682 statewide will be able to raise property taxes by an average of 3 percent in the coming year, according to State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli.

How much all the state's districts will increase their tax levy won't be known precisely until after voters across the state consider budgets May 15.

But when all the various exclusions to the law are added in, DiNapoli said, 3 percent will end up being the average levy increase that districts can adopt without having to get special approval from more than 60 percent of voters.

The lowest actual adopted levy increase over the last 15 years was 2 percent in 2010, while the highest, 8.1 percent, occurred in 2005, according to a separate report last year by DiNapoli. In the current school year, the average property tax levy went up by about 3.4 percent.

Robert N. Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents, said that about 516 of the districts in DiNapoli's report did not reveal their actual levy increase proposals. Of those that did, he said, only 4 percent are planning to ask voters to override their legal cap level. He said it is uncertain whether a disproportionate share of those not reporting will be seeking overrides from voters next month.

Of those that did submit data, Lowry estimated the average proposed tax levy increase is about 2.5 percent.

"The tax cap is having an impact," Lowry said, noting that districts have been slowing the property tax levy increase in recent years, even before the tax cap, because of voter sentiment.

This year, Lowry said, districts are being extra cautious about avoiding budget rejections because of the new requirement for a supermajority in a second round of voting. "It is pushing districts to propose increases at or below their tax levy," Lowry said.

A second budget defeat requires a district to set a budget with no year-to-year increase in the tax levy.

"It's obviously a risky gamble to go that route," said Steven J. Hancox, the state's deputy comptroller for local government and school accountability.

The new report for 2012-13 school taxes shows wide swings in proposed levies.

The highest allowable increase without an override vote -- 32 percent -- is in the Barker School District, where tax revenues are off because of a financially troubled coal power plant in Somerset. School officials did not provide the State Comptroller's Office with a proposed tax levy, and officials did not return calls seeking comment.

At the other end, in the Oswego School District along Lake Ontario, the property tax levy limit will drop as much as 43 percent, DiNapoli's office reported. Such statistical anomalies aside, DiNapoli said, most districts are falling within new spending limits to meet the conditions of the property tax cap.

The new law allows a number of spending exemptions to the cap, including certain pension cost expenses for district employees, voter-approved construction projects and payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deals with businesses. Also, property tax revenues derived from development in a community -- such as a new housing subdivision -- also is excluded from the cap's calculation.