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Wayne County tax fight

by Evan Dawson

Wayne County, N.Y. -- It is not an empty threat, Wayne County school superintendents say, when they talk about the possibility of cutting music or student council, pre-K or full-day kindergarten. In fact, they don't want these ideas to be viewed as threats at all. They're simply trying to prepare for all scenarios, and they want taxpayers and parents to be prepared, too.

But the air seems to suck right out of the room when someone suggests cutting sports.

A board member looks at me and says, "That would be a war." After a pause he adds, "No one wants that. If you don't have sports, no one wants to move their family to your town. See the ripple effect? It's real, and it could happen."

All of this centers on the possibility that the Wayne County Board of Supervisors will break with a decades-long agreement and take away the annual $5.4 million in sales tax revenue that is earmarked for school districts. This sharing began in the 1960s, and was capped at $5.4 million more than 20 years ago. But now the county has to confront its own difficult financial decisions, and so the supervisors have again looked at grabbing that sales tax money for their own budget.

On Thursday in Newark, a united group dominated by school board members and superintendents met to lay out the possible next steps. They wanted taxpayers to see what is coming, or what might be coming, if the supervisors take away the $5.4 million.

To make up for the lost sales tax money, each district would have to raise taxes far beyond the capped maximum level of 2%. The average district would need to raise property taxes 7.3% to make up the difference; for the owner of a $100,000 home, that's a tax increase of $119. (If the Board of Supervisors decided to give the $5.4 million back to taxpayers in the form of a tax cut, it would be essentially a wash with the districts raising taxes.)

Districts have no guarantee that they'd be able to count on those larger tax increases, however. That's because in order to pass an increase beyond 2%, the district would need a super-majority of voter support (60% or more).

"That's very difficult to achieve," said Michael Collins, the Williamson School Board President. Collins pointed out that if the budget fails, the law dictates a 0% tax increase. That would lead to even deeper cuts than districts would face with a 2% increase. Each district would then have to decide whether to risk going to voters with a large tax increase, knowing it would require a super-majority. "We do have faith in our community, and if we made a compelling argument, we might be able to do it, but it's a risk I'm not sure boards want to take at this point."

Some local business owners detect a kind of shell game, with supervisors threatening to force school districts to do their dirty work of raising taxes. Jason Smith, owner of Westbury Lumber (and whose wife works for a school board), called the sales tax proposal a "ploy to make school districts look like the bad guy. The supervisors have to know that taxpayers will see through it. They'll know who's really responsible when taxes go up."

So what do the supervisors say? So far, they're still discussing it. A finance committee will meet Friday and could address the issue, including the question of when the county would stop giving the schools their traditional share of $5.4 million in sales tax money. (Most districts expect that wouldn't take effect until 2015.)

James Hoffman, the president of the Wayne County Board of Supervisors, told 13WHAM News, "The question I have for the board is where is that money best spent, where is the sales tax revenue best spent? I guess that's the larger question: Should the county continue to raise taxes on behalf of the school district?"

There appears to be no chance of a compromise. David Sholes, superintendent of Red Creek schools, said that the compromise happened in the early 1990s. That's when the county changed the formula. Schools used to receive 1% of the annual sales tax, but it was changed to $5.4 million. "We feel like that is the compromise," Sholes said. "We're not trying to be difficult. But we've already bent."

Some school districts are clearly averse to large tax increases, which is why boards are already discussing where to cut. Collins stressed that "Pre-K, full-day kindergarten, even sports could be cut."

But he knows that in Wayne County, sports are like churches and coffee cups: They're everywhere. "Again, no one wants this," Collins said.

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Washington Times