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Clarence school budget faces battle despite staying within state cap

Clarence taxpayers who led the charge to vote down the school budget two years ago are making noise again.

But this time, an active group of budget supporters is making sure their voices are heard, too.

And that’s how it is these days in the Town of Clarence, where friction over the school budget will be on display again Tuesday when residents vote on a $75 million spending plan and candidates for School Board.

Opponents, worried about rising property taxes, began circulating fliers and signs last week encouraging taxpayers to vote down the school budget, which proposes a 3.8 percent increase in the amount to be raised in taxes.

“Clarence is known as a wealthy town, but we’re not all wealthy here,” said Ellie Corcoran, who is spearheading the opposition. “People are living paycheck to paycheck. Some lost jobs. Others are on fixed incomes. There’s a lot of senior citizens around.”

We’ll find out Tuesday whether Clarence taxpayers are as worked up about the school budget as they were during the tumultuous budget season of 2013.

That’s when a nearly 10 percent increase in the tax levy provoked a community uproar and motivated taxpayers to turn out in record numbers to defeat the budget. A second-chance budget was approved a month later, but only after significant cuts. In fact, it took donations from hundreds of parents and boosters to bring back the clubs and sports programs that were chopped.

But this year, the story line is different.

The proposed levy is below the state-mandated tax cap – a far cry from the eye-popping 9.8 percent that galvanized taxpayers two years ago.

Meanwhile, supporters have learned lessons from the stinging budget defeat of two years ago. This year, they’re ready.

The grass-roots group Keep Clarence Schools Great has been more active in the community and on social media, rallying school supporters to vote in favor of the budget Tuesday.

“I think people are much more engaged now than they ever were,” said Brendan Biddlecom, who founded the group in 2012. “If there is a silver lining, the crisis that we faced over the past couple of years has forced people to get educated about the issues – and that’s a good thing.”

The proposed 2015-16 budget totals $75.4 million, up $2.8 million from current spending. The tax levy – the amount to be raised in taxes – is up 3.8 percent.

The school district originally projected an increase in the tax rate, but now estimates the rate will be lower than this year’s because of a rise in the tax base from a recent town-wide revaluation.

That means school tax bills could go down next year for homeowners who didn’t see an increase in their assessments.

Even those homeowners who receive a larger school bill will get back the difference in October as a rebate check from New York State, because Clarence stayed within the tax cap.

No matter, Corcoran said.

“We’re not backing off on this,” Corcoran said of the fight against the budget. “What we’re really worried about is the compounding effect. This is going to continue, and if you compound 3.8 percent over 10 years you’re going to get quite an increase in taxes. It can’t keep going up and up.”

Community interest in the budget has been high since the process began late last year. It included six budget meetings, each with an average attendance of 100 people, said Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks.

“For the most part, we’re happy and satisfied that our community cares and provides us with feedback – one way or the other – because it helps us make good determinations about the best interests of kids in the community,” Hicks said. “When people challenge us, we need to have a good explanation for why we made the decisions we did – and we think we do.”

Clarence originally came in with a tax levy that bumped up against its state-calculated cap of 4.78 percent. Then, the school district received $1.1 million more than expected in state aid and used the additional money to help bring down the tax levy and restore 11 teaching positions that had been cut in previous years.

“We thought that was the prudent thing to do,” Hicks said.

But that’s also what triggered the backlash among those in the anti-tax camp.

“Instead of giving taxpayers a break, they decided to restore 11 positions at a time the enrollment is declining,” Corcoran said. “Now, that means more salaries, more pensions, more health benefits – and more taxes.”

Supporters, meanwhile, remind residents that Clarence has the second-lowest tax rate in the area.

“The most important message is we do not have a spending problem in Clarence,” Biddlecom said.

“What we’re trying to do is a lot of education,” Biddlecom said. “There’s a lot of chatter out there, a lot of misconstruing of facts. We’re trying to get the real facts out there so people can vote accordingly.”

The school budget has made for passionate community debate that at times, Corcoran said, has turned nasty. Tensions have spilled into the School Board elections, with both camps choosing sides: Biddlecom’s group supporting incumbent Michael Fuchs and Dennis Priore, while Corcoran’s camp backing Jacob Kerksiek and Joseph Lombardo.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday at Clarence High School, but expect this discussion to continue long after that.

“We’re not going to stop until 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 19,” Biddlecom said, “and, quite frankly, this is a year-round effort at this point.”

Clarence budget/candidate information

Percent of budget from property taxes: 58.45 percent

Percent of budget from state aid: 30.3 percent

Candidates (Elect 2): Michael Fuchs (i), Jacob Kerksiek, Joseph Lombardo and Dennis Priore.

Total budget: $75,392,337, s 3.86 percent

Tax levy (total amount to be raised through property taxes): $44,068,450, s 3.84 percent

Tax levy increase allowed under tax cap: 4.78 percent

Estimated property tax rate per $1,000 of assessed value: $15.37, s 3.85 percent*

Estimated taxes on $100,000 home (market value): $1,537*

Proposition: Residents will vote on whether the district should purchase 12 school buses and a plow truck for an amount not to exceed $990,000.

Polls open: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. in the gym of Clarence High School, 9625 Main St., Clarence.

* Estimated tax rates are based on the total taxable value and equalization rate. Final tax rates are established in August.