School Bond Vote Practice Questioned

According to Steve Levy, a former county executive for Suffolk who is now the director of the Center for Cost Effective Government in Bayport, state legislation is needed to mandate that any increases in property taxes, whether due to capital improvements or standard operational costs, must be presented to the voter at one time in May, during the annual school budget vote.

The issue takes on particular significance as the Springs School District is seeking taxpayer approval of the bonds necessary for its $16.9-million expansion plan. The bond referendum is set for March 6, a time when many South Fork taxpayers are still away in sunnier climes.

“Of course, many bonds are legitimate and needed,” Mr. Levy said by phone. “But too many are also being used as a backdoor way around the tax cap.”

Many schools, he said, add operational costs, such as annual maintenance, into bond votes, allowing such items to circumvent New York’s 2-percent tax cap, implemented in 2011 as a measure to force local governments to prioritize their expenditures. Interest paid on bond votes is exempt from the tax cap calculation. Furthermore, Mr. Levy said, holding the vote in the winter means that “many folks are traveling and not engaged.”

A bill sponsored by Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. that is before the State Legislature seeks to mandate that school districts present taxpayers with one vote on one day. 

“You should absolutely know in May what your total tax will be for the upcoming year,” Mr. Levy said. “Not be told six months later that on top of that figure, there will be an additional increase.”

Debra Winter, the Springs School’s superintendent, said that March 6 was chosen for its expansion vote in order to stick to a timeline. 

“The bond referendum was originally slated for an early December vote,” she said in an email. “However, due to a delay with the [State Environmental Quality Review Act] report, the date of the potential vote needed to be pushed back. To stay on schedule with construction as well as the state approval process, we have been advised by our architects, bond counsel, and fiscal adviser that March was the preferred month for a vote. A May vote could potentially result in a significant delay for the start of construction, which, upon voter approval in March, we anticipate would begin in summer 2019.”

If Mr. Thiele’s legislation becomes law, however, schools in the future may no longer have that choice.