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Property Tax Caps (Mostly) Hold in N.Y. School Budget Votes

When it came to getting their proposed budgets approved by voters, district school boards across New York State didn't quite bat a thousand, but batting .964 is pretty close.

What's notable about this year is that school boards had to contend with a property tax cap for the first time that limits total revenues a district can collect annually. As The New York Times points out, those caps varied by district, but averaged at 2.3 percent (the maximum allowable percentage a district could increase local property tax increases).

Budgets that went above those tax caps required the approval of 60 percent of voters, instead of the simple majority for budgets that stayed at or beneath the caps. (New York State school districts must be their budget proposals to the public for a vote on the third Tuesday in May of each year.)

Overall, 96.4 percent of proposed budgets from school boards were approved by voters, slightly higher than the 93 percent that were approved last year, according to information released by the New York State School Boards Association (since 1969, the average passage rate is 84 percent). For those 623 districts that did not go above their local property tax caps, the success rate was 99.2 percent. The school boards association said 48 districts chose to bust through their tax caps in the budgets they put to voters, but only 29 of them were approved by at least 60 percent and passed.

"The voting public has once again shown its strong support for education. Voters recognized that school leaders did everything they could to comply with the spirit and intent of the property tax levy cap," said the association's executive director, Timothy G. Kremer, in a statement accompanying those numbers. "They were responsive to their communities."

Kremer took the time to add that abiding by the caps was not a pleasure cruise for districts: 99 percent of districts had to dip into reserve funds to make their budgets work.

The association also takes advantage of the attention to argue that the state's Triborough Amendment is a pain in the neck. This amendment to the state's Taylor Law (which governs public employee labor relations) prohibits public employers from altering any provisions in an expired collective bargaining agreement until a new agreement is reached.

The New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (in its "Stop the Tax Shift" website) argues this can mean automatic pay increases "even when labor negotiations have reached an impasse." The school boards association brings it up to say that the amendment makes it hard for districts to get long-term "concessions" from unions. But New York State Unified Teachers, the state teachers' union, argues that the Triborough Amendment stops governments from slashing employee benefits while a new contract is being negotiated. Take your pick.

Neighboring New Jersey also has a 2-percent cap on property tax hikes. Tom Barrett, the Democratic gubernatorial primary winner, has argued against Wisconsin's property tax cap enacted under GOP Gov. Scott Walker. Walker, in turn, has pointed to the benefits of that cap.

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