Board of Education President Ann Cotten-DeGrasse and administrators have been warning about the potential repercussions from school operations for months, and now it's official: Riverhead School District and the rest of New York State are going to be subject to a 2 percent property tax hike cap in 2012 and beyond.
Beyond school districts, all local governments – towns, villages, fire districts – would be subject to regulations of the bill, which slipped by many members of the public in the shadow of the same-sex marriage bill passage.
Tax raises each year will be limited to 2 percent unless 60 percent of voters or a governing body approve a higher tax rate. Roughly two-thirds of tax bills are paid to local school districts.
Walking around downtown Riverhead on Tuesday afternoon, Deborah Shishido admitted that she didn't know what a tax cap was, never mind the fact that it had passed at the state level and is going to cause a "rough ride" for local school districts, according to Cotten-DeGrasse.
Nonetheless, Shishido, a Quogue resident, said school districts should still be able to operate functionally.
"I think they have the money, they just don't manage it correctly," she said. "They should spend less on administrators and more on the kids."
Bill Farrell, an Islip resident and attorney with offices in Riverhead, expressed a similar sentiment.
"I think this is a knee jerk reaction, and don't think it's going to solve the real problem," he said. "There are too many school districts and too many superintendents and staff members getting paid. They should consolidate school districts into townships."
According to the text of the bill, which was sponsored by 34 state senators, including state Sen. Ken LaValle, R-Port Jefferson, New Yorkers pay the second-highest property taxes in the nation. The median property tax bill in the United States is $1,917, according to the bill, with the New York average coming in at $3,755.
Riverhead's school budget – $109.5 million in the upcoming school year – has more than doubled since a contingency budget of $51 million was adopted in 1998.
Cotten-DeGrasse, a Riverhead resident herself, said she would love to see her property taxes drop. But, she said, "there comes a time when we can't do any more with less."
The school district laid off 24 employees in May after raising the 2011-2012 budget by 1.27 percent over last year. The school board president said it's only going to get worse as employee retirement payments aren't going down in the next couple years. While the bill excludes capping pension cost increases over 2 percent from the previous year, Cotten-DeGrasse said spending on pension increases could cut into programs offered in the district.
"We're going to have to start looking to cutting programs – sports, music, art, all the extras we have," she said.
She said she was most disappointed about the lack of mandate relief in the bill, and the fact that there is no sunset on the tax cap.
Superintendent Nancy Carney and Interim Finance Superintendent Joseph Singleton were both unavailable for comment.
Paul Squire contributed to this article.