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At Sullivan West, Leaders Talk Taxes

By Dan Hust
LAKE HUNTINGTON — December 4, 2007 — Sullivan West taxpayers were told Thursday night that, yes, taxes will continue to escalate, but in perhaps five years, tax increases will mirror budget increases.
“We want to get to a spot where our budget increases and our tax level increases are dollar-for-dollar the same,” explained Assistant Superintendent for Business Larry Lawrence.
“We’re going to ask for a dollar, we’re going to spend a dollar,” added Superintendent Ken Hilton.
Thursday evening’s public forum on SW’s fiscal condition and future prognosis provided some hope to attendees who had found only discouraging news at the prior forum regarding SW’s two open, problem-plagued campuses and its two closed, yet still costly campuses.
In fact, this past Thursday’s meeting indicated the struggling district may finally have what it’s wanted and needed for so long: a five-year financial plan.
“We need continuity in our school district. We need to have a long-range plan,” acknowledged Hilton, who admitted that SW had suffered some “hard knocks in the fiscal past” because of errors made by former officials.
Yet at the same time, he insisted the community cannot lose sight of SW’s primary mission: to offer local children an effective, quality education.
“We have got to be fiscally responsible, but we need to say, ‘What is it our children need?’” he added.
Hilton and Lawrence presented a tentative road map that evening that could lead SW to its goals, but both cautioned that – despite an illustration of a crystal ball that wryly introduced the on-screen presentation – no one could predict the future with certainty.
“Nothing that we say here or you see tonight can be cast in stone,” said Lawrence.
Nevertheless, here are the highlights of what they said:
A $3.1 million fund balance (surplus) at the end of last school year was far more than anticipated; thus, school officials were constrained by law to return much of it to the taxpayers, as essentially they were being overtaxed.
About $1.2 million was returned in the form of a tax reduction in this school year, while $1.9 million was retained as a legal buffer for any unanticipated, uninsured expenses.
Officials estimate a surplus of $1.4-$1.8 million this year, recommending the board approve its use for non-recurring expenditures in order to avoid the seesawing fund balance problems SW has faced since it merged, which have resulted in similarly seesawing tax rates.
“Our focus in the next five years will be on controlling expenses and anticipating destabilizing events,” said Lawrence.
The first challenge in reaching that goal has already arrived: Lawrence’s calculations indicated taxpayers would be hit with a 20 percent tax increase next year if the seesawing trend was allowed to continue.
By reducing the surplus even further and proposing a 2008-2009 budget that will increase by less than three percent over the current year, Lawrence felt confident an 8.5 percent tax increase could be achieved.
In 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, he expects proposed budget increases will be around 3-5 percent, leading to tax levy increases of about 8 percent each year.
In 2011-2012 and 2012-2013, Lawrence projected budget increases of 3-4 percent and a tax levy of about 5 percent, decreasing slightly each year thereafter.
Several assumptions, of course, are involved in these predictions, including moderating property value increases in the cooling real estate market, less inequity in equalization rates and assessment practices, and fairly stable state aid (Lawrence actually figured in numbers less than what Albany has promised).
The calculations also included the four campuses being maintained and operated the way they are now, with the Lake Huntington high school and Jeffersonville elementary school open and the Narrowsburg and Delaware Valley schools closed.
That’s not to say it will stay that way. Hilton said operating facilities that can handle more than 4,000 students when SW just has 1,400 is a needless burden, though he reiterated his stance that the board and community will ultimately decide what to do with the schools.
“We’re all in this together,” the superintendent said.

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