If a legislative proposal meant to eliminate dramatic variations in tax rates between the Riverhead and Southampton town portions of the Riverhead School District had already been implemented, Southampton residents would have seen a tax rate increase in the range of 2 percent this year, rather than the 23 percent they actually got.
That’s according to Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who joined state Senator Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Southampton Town officials in addressing the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association Friday night.
Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle plan to sponsor a bill they hope will eliminate similar school tax rate spikes in the future for the Southampton portion of the district. The measure proposes an equalization rate based on a five-year average of property values in Riverhead, Southampton and Brookhaven, the three towns that make up the school district, rather on annual property values.
The equalization rate is a formula that’s used to divvy up the tax levy — the overall amount of money collected from local taxpayers — in districts that are split over two or more towns and, according to Mr. Thiele, it is also the reason for big differences in tax rates from town to town.
“It always comes down to the same thing,” he said. “It’s the equalization rate that’s causing the problem.”
Over a 10-year period, the percentage of the tax levy that’s landed on Southampton and Riverhead residents has been relatively balanced, according to Mr. Thiele. But on a year-to-year basis, the difference has sometimes been significant — and Southampton has frequently gotten the worst of it.
For this school year, for example, the overall school district tax levy was up just 2.5 percent, but the Southampton part of the district saw its school taxes jump 23 percent while the Riverhead rate dropped by just under 1 percent.
The tax rate for the Southampton side has increased by 22, 14.5 and 14.6 percent over the past three years. But the Riverhead side saw a decrease this year and increases of just 1.16 and 2.67 percent in the two previous years.
“It’s a continual problem year after year after year,” said Brad Bender, former president of FRNCA. “It’s unfair, we’re tired of it and we’re trying to see if we can bring about some type of a solution.”
According to interim Southampton assessor John Valente, the imbalance has to do with the fact that Southampton assesses property at 100 percent of market value, while Riverhead, which hasn’t done a townwide reassessment since 1980, assesses at about 15 percent. Because Southampton continually updates assessments, its numbers are more likely to change than Riverhead’s, he said. In the recent recession, the total assessed value of property in the Southampton portion of the Riverhead school district decreased.
Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne Holst said the Town Board is considering discontinuing the practice of updating assessments annually.
Mr. Thiele said of the proposed solution, which has yet to be filed, “We can’t guarantee that the Southampton side will do better that the Riverhead side, but instead of seeing wild taxes increases, up and down, it would be steady over five years.”
Both Mr. Thiele and Mr. LaValle said they have submitted many bills over the years aimed to easing the tax burden for Flanders, Riverside and Northampton residents, but none has yielded a permanent solution.
Mr. Thiele said part of the problem is Riverhead school spending, which has increased 60 percent over 10 years, which he said is twice the rate of inflation for that period.
He said another problem is that the Southampton portion of the district is only about 20 percent of the total land value, while the Riverhead side if about 80 percent, so changes in the 20 percent are likely to result in bigger percentage changes.