The Riverhead Central School District and other districts across Long Island are congratulating themselves for staying under their tax caps, but is that really good enough?
Yes, the 0.91 percent increase for RCSD seemed so insignificant that local voter apathy was at an all-time high and the budget passed easily. Still, let’s pull back the curtain on some numbers and examine them. Median income in Riverhead is not rising, at least not until the minimum wage increases. Therefore, any tax increase disproportionately hurts all taxpayers that are not among the highest earners.
The shame of even the modest increase is that it was not necessary at all. In fact, a zero increase likely would have created a great message about Riverhead and could have caught us some positive attention for future local economic development projects.
The good news: It is not too late and we can still turn around the tax increase. More on that later.
So, how can we fill the cost and income gap if we throw out the tax increase? Here are four ways of saving us from the increase (and there are more):
• The Mercy effect: As horrible as the McGann-Mercy High School situation is for the students and staff, it is a financial pop-up that is easy for RCSD to catch. The Mercy closing will save RCSD expenses it had to pay for Mercy students.
• Smarter bus parking: Anybody who thinks about it for a minute realizes that the new bus garage siting costs RCSD a lot due to extra mileage for six out of seven schools — with a gross amount of mileage added for the four-school cluster at the high school, Middle School, Roanoke and Pulaski. Central repair is smart, but central parking away from the schools increases mileage, and that is not smart. The answer to saving a bundle on transportation is to keep parking for the four-school cluster buses near those schools.
• Big savings and faster transport for homeless students: This is another horrible situation for kids that can be fixed to cut student transportation time and cost dramatically. The district office reports that it costs $5,000 a month to transport some of these students and then they still might not make it home until 7 p.m. — this is like “child abuse by bus.” The service is purchased from BOCES. Putting this out for open bids, or even sending some of those kids home by Uber, can save the district a lot of money.
• Shrinking kindergartens: The money saved by closing classrooms for the shrinking kindergarten enrollment is significant. On Long Island these days, shrinking kindergartens usually signal a trend — so next year, first grade shrinks as well as kindergarten and in two years, second grade shrinks as well as first and kindergarten, then third grade also, etc. Then, in a few years the trend multiplies when a second kindergarten is cut. What seems to be producing this trend is obvious: Drops in median income have caused young people not just to move away, but those that stay are having fewer children, if any.
Each of these four savings areas can pay for the cost of reorganization and turnaround to make for a zero tax increase for this year. The logistics for the tax cut are simple: Don’t retire the debt as quickly. The budget is about $140 million. Hold back on retiring about $1.3 million to cut the tax increase to zero.
Then, the delayed debt service cost will be between $30,000 and $40,000 — a cost easily made up by any one of the above four savings.
Of course, the boldness for what planners wish to do with a budget depends on their personal values and goals. From what taxpayers have told me, they are feeling the pain of past increases and they want relief now. The only barrier to tax relief is political will (and personal agendas), yet we can be completely certain that fewer taxpayers will complain if their school tax bill doesn’t go up. The superintendent and the school board have an opportunity to raise a higher bar for fiscal responsibility success for all of Riverhead if they take this easy path to make the tax increase zero.
The author ran unsuccessfully for the Riverhead Board of Education in May. He lives in Calverton.