Taxing Situation at Sullivan West
By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON August 28, 2007 For a day, Sullivan West found itself in a position few if any public school districts in the state ever have.
Thanks to a 4-1 vote at Thursday evening’s board meeting in Lake Huntington, the district stood unable to collect its taxes for about 21 hours.
An emergency meeting in Jeffersonville the next day resolved the impasse, although board member Noel van Swol did not change his dissenting vote.
Instead, Anna Niemann, who had not been present the night before, cast the needed fifth vote to authorize the district’s tax levy.
Board President Rich Sandler and board members Rose Crotty, Richard Tegnander and Ken Cohen reaffirmed their “yes” votes on Friday. Board Vice President Shaun Sensiba was unable to attend either meeting (neither of which had been part of the board’s original meeting schedule).
Had the board been unable to approve the levy, taxpayers would not have received their school tax bills by the September 1 deadline. Not only would that have delayed collection of taxes by as much as a month, it might have also resulted in legal action by taxpayers or even the NYS Education Department.
So why did van Swol vote “no”?
“I have to say it’s irresponsible not to let taxpayers know they face an extremely unstable tax situation and could get hit with a significant tax increase next year,” he told a tiny audience Thursday that consisted mostly of school personnel.
Van Swol was referring to the much-feared “yo-yo” scenario where a district lowers taxes one year and then hikes them significantly the next a situation that has happened to SW before.
This year, only the Town of Bethel and the Delaware County Town of Hancock will see tax hikes (.65 percent and 3.39 percent, respectively) due to varying equalization rates, according to Superintendent Kenneth Hilton.
This is all possible because the district incurred a $4 million surplus last year, and state education law requires SW to either put it in reserve or give it back to the taxpayers.
Since SW has already created and fully funded the various authorized reserves, it must give the rest back and that amounts to about $3.2 million, directly reducing the taxes needing to be levied.
Van Swol’s fear, however, is that when the 2008-2009 budget year rolls around, taxpayers will face double-digit tax hikes as much as 15-20 percent.
“People will be asking, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’” he predicted. “… I don’t think this board wants to be perceived as a bunch of Indian givers.”
Ironically, the entire board and the superintendent said they share those concerns.
“There’s no doubt [the taxes] are going to rebound,” agreed Sandler. “It’s a question of how much.”
“There’s a saying: ‘No good deed shall go unpunished,’” Tegnander dryly quipped. “We might be giving a tax rebate this year, but unfortunately it’s going to come back and bite us next year.”
“In principle I agree with you, Noel,” said Cohen. “I have the same fears you do… but the reality is we can’t do anything except to watch the ship this year. I don’t see what voting ‘no’ is going to do to make it go away or get better.”
Cohen and Tegnander went a little farther than their fellow board members in advocating for applying the $3.2 million to education rather than directly to paying down taxes, but in the end they all agreed that delaying the collection of taxes would not help the situation.
Van Swol, however, said he would only vote “yes” if Hilton and brand new Assistant Superintendent for Business Larry Lawrence (who doesn’t officially start his job until next week) provided him with a projection of next year’s taxes.
“I would be happy to vote for this if I had a forecast of what the tax impact will be next year,” he said, echoing an unanswered request he had made at an earlier August board meeting. “… I think the public is entitled to that information.”
“To suggest I could give you a reasonable expectation of what the tax rates would be next year I can’t do that,” replied Lawrence.
“It would be guesswork,” added Hilton.
“Absolutely,” seconded Lawrence.
“I’m not saying it has to be totally accurate,” explained van Swol.
“I’m reluctant to put together on a wing and a prayer a guesstimate,” insisted Hilton. “… I think it would be an irresponsible act.”
Nevertheless, van Swol voted “no,” forcing an emergency meeting Friday. Though he had asked for time to consider the matter, van Swol also voted against postponing the vote “on principle,” quipping that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
Friday afternoon, the board reconvened in Jeffersonville, with Niemann now present, and voted 5-1 to authorize the tax levy.
“I have not seen a forecast yet,” van Swol explained after the meeting. “We made the mistake last year of not standing firm and requesting forecasts.”
In the meantime, Treasurer Lorraine Poston said taxpayers can be assured they will get their school tax bills by September 1.August