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LI schools say property tax cap would cause strain


7:50 PM EDT, August 7, 2008

Long Island school representatives say a statewide cap on property taxes would ultimately place heavy strain on middle-income communities -- mostly places with high taxes where the cap concept holds great appeal.

In Albany, the GOP-dominated State Senate is expected to approve a 4 percent cap today in special session, along with other legislation aimed at curbing costs to local districts. Chances of passage in the Democratic-controlled State Assembly are more doubtful.

The cap, which is also backed by Democratic Gov. David Paterson, would restrict districts to annual increases in tax levies of 4 percent, or 120 percent of the inflation rate, whichever is less. Districts could override the cap only through voting majorities of 55 or 60 percent, depending on how much state aid they receive.

The override provision troubles many officials in middle-class districts. They fear that local homeowners, upset over soaring taxes, would tend to reject override attempts. This, officials say, would put their districts at a disadvantage compared to poorer districts that receive more state financial assistance, or richer districts where overrides are likely to succeed.

"Our systems would become eroded, and the gap between the haves and have-nots would become wider," said Jim Kaden, president of the Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association and a board trustee in the middle-income South Huntington district.

"And then, I think you start seeing flight, because people don't want to live there any more. They want to move to districts where people can afford overrides."

The association issued a position paper this week opposing a tax cap. The Suffolk County School Superintendents Association also released a study concluding that a cap should not be considered until the state adopted an aid-distribution formula providing more money for the Island.

Proponents say a cap is essential, nonetheless, to halt spiraling property taxes that have risen 63.8 percent in Suffolk County and 74.8 percent in Nassau between 1995 and 2005. In Massachusetts, a statewide cap approved by voters in 1980 has curbed property taxes, but also strained less wealthy districts, which have found it difficult to win overrides.

A cap for New York State was one recommendation of a state commission headed by Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, a Democrat. Suozzi said yesterday that he would push in the future for an easing of costs to local districts -- for example, by encouraging those districts to share more administrative expenses. The county executive added, however, that capping taxes took top priority.

"We cannot continue to fund what is the most expensive school system in America," Suozzi said. "The people can't take it anymore."

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