On the beat: Tax cap is no long-term solution

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Julie Lane

REPORTER FILE PHOTO | Julie Lane

While Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislators are praising themselves for extending the 2 percent tax cap for another four years, they’re failing to recognize what’s happening in many municipalities, Shelter Island among them.

When the governor announced the tax cap early in his first term, he touted it as a means of controlling spending by limiting the tax bite residents would have to sustain in operating their municipal governments and schools.

The idea sounded good. But it didn’t work for everyone then and is unlikely to work for most in the future.

Many applauded the effort to drive down spending, convinced there was a lot of fat in budgets. It wasn’t unusual in past years to see town and school budgets go up by at least 5 percent a year.

On Shelter Island, the town held to the 2 percent tax cap until it was forced to pierce it to construct its 2014 budget. The Town Board again pierced the tax cap for its 2015 spending plan.

The Shelter Island School District managed to stay within the state-imposed limits, but Superintendent Leonard Skuggevik and members of the Board of Education warned this year they probably will have to pierce the cap for the 2016-17 school year.

No — the new superintendent hasn’t gone hog wild with his spending. There’s a precedent with the message first voiced by former Superintendent Michael Hynes when the cap was imposed. It could be met only by applying money from the district’s fund balance — money put away for a rainy day. But that rainy day came and went and so has most of the fund balance.

It’s why custodial workers have had to put in extra hours manually working heating and air conditioning units in the school building since the system broke down two years ago and there wasn’t money to fix it.

Mike Dunning and Greg Sulahian and others have been spelling one another around the clock to keep the system functioning until plans could be developed and money found to fix the aged and broken system. But work isn’t expected to even get started this year, awaiting approval from the New York State Education Department that is sorely behind in its paperwork.

Supervisor Jim Dougherty, a member of the governor’s Democratic Party, is no spendthrift. But he has called the tax cap “a gimmick,” adding that it’s impossible to maintain as long as expenses, such as employee health care premiums, continue to rise by an average of 4.5 percent or more a year.

And while everyone talks about finding comparable coverage at less cost, it simply doesn’t exist.

More bad news: Health care premiums aren’t the only escalating costs. Contractual agreements with union members — police, teachers and town workers — must be met.

I respect those unions that gave back in 2008 when the Bush economy was crashing and we were all hurting, and I’m critical of those who took raises without ever considering the burden it was placing on their fellow taxpayers.

But now that the economic recovery is a reality, don’t expect any union give-backs.

The costs of fuel oil and gasoline may have gone down in the past year, but they have been sky high in recent years and there’s no guarantee oil prices won’t rise again.

If you think the town and school budgets are full of lard, you need only to look at your own household expenses that escalate year after year while you’re doing your best to contain costs.

The state continues to impose costly and unpaid mandates on local governments and school districts, somehow still expecting them to budget within the ballyhooed tax cap.

Many communities have long been piercing the tax cap while many more will be doing so in the years ahead.

If Albany — and, for that matter, Washington — really want to give taxpayers help, let them start by cutting back on existing unfunded mandates and not adding more unless they’re ready to pay for them.

Our state officials applaud extending the tax cap for at least another four years. We should see it as the trickery it is.

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