Guest Spot: Why a school bond is so hard to swallow

The Riverhead school board last month adopted its proposed budget for the 2011-12 school year. As in many other districts, we were told this is the lowest budget-to-budget increase in years. At 1.26 percent (a 4.93 percent tax levy increase), this may be the lowest total budget increase in years, but the budget contains skyrocketing increases that cannot be sustained by the Riverhead taxpayer who, according to an article in the April 21 News-Review, lives in one of the 10 poorest school districts in Suffolk County. Perusing the budget that was given out at the adoption meeting, a few items caught my eye.

This year’s total employee benefits are increasing 11.98 percent, which includes a whopping 44 percent increase in employee retirement benefits; a 34.51 percent increase in teachers’ retirement benefits; an 11.3 percent increase in “contract benefits,” which apparently does not include the increase in health insurance benefits — that’s a separate item increasing 3.9 percent. Ironically, given the fact that the taxpayers  here will likely be asked to fund an $80 million bond for maintenance of our buildings in the fall, the current budget allows for an “operation of plant” increase of only $29,856 and the “maintenance of plant” item has been cut $14,890. More on that later.

Looking at retirement benefits alone, the funds allocated increased exactly $1,635,416 for 2010-11 over the previous school year and will increase another $2,060,268 for 2011-12. Imagine what the cost will be in 15-20 years! With retirees often collecting benefits for a longer period of time than they were employed (and in many cases moving from the area because our taxes are too high), this scale of increase year over year means that your child or grandchild born today — should they buy a home in the Riverhead district — will still be paying for the benefits of today’s retirees, in addition to benefits for the many more who will continue to retire and in addition to the contracted step increases and raises. Think of this: Children not yet born will be saddled with taxes required to support the insatiable maw that is our school district. As I said, this is unsustainable.

The people of Riverhead cannot afford another increase in their taxes. We need a tax decrease. The median family income in the Riverhead district is $63,291, according to the data reported by the News-Review, which is from the U.S. Census American Community Survey. I have been told by a district official that our taxes are “in line” with other towns in Suffolk County, but Riverhead school district is not Half Hollow Hills and Riverhead is not Dix Hills. The residents of Riverhead do not have the salaries of those in many towns in western Suffolk.

When taxes go up, the value (selling price) of a home must be adjusted to compensate the full cost of carrying the home. Here are some sample taxes taken from recent sales: A four-bedroom home on one acre in Riverhead’s Rolling Woods neighborhood near the Sound sold for $296,000 with a tax bill of $9,825; a two-bedroom ranch on Ackerly Street in Riverhead sold for $235,000 with taxes amounting $6,336, while a similarly sized two-bedroom ranch in Southold recently sold for $299,000 with taxes of just $3,243. Here are some recent sales from the South Fork to contrast: A three-bedroom house in Water Mill sold for $1.31 million with taxes of $5,668; a Southampton four-bedroom that sold for $2 million carried a tax bill of $5,148. The new owners of a three-bedroom in Quogue that sold for $1.48 million are paying just $5,000 in taxes. It is not unusual for a home in the Riverhead school district listed in the $400,000 to $500,000 range to have taxes of $11,000 to $13,000. I could go on, but do the research on your own to verify these figures.

Last, in a classic example of kicking the can down the road, this fall we could be asked to vote on an $80 million infrastructure improvement bond, which we would pay off for the next 20 years or so, in addition to our taxes, because our schools desperately need repairs. Why? Because over the past 30 years maintenance has been consistently cut from the budgets in order to get them passed. The huge taxes we have been paying in good faith to the schools, assuming that the money would be spent at least in part for our children’s well being, have not been used to maintain the buildings at all but have been spent instead to secure comfortable lives and retirements. That’s what makes this especially unpalatable.

Ms. Bidwell is a real estate agent who lives in Aquebogue and a member of the Community Partnership for Revitalization, which has met monthly to discuss the district’s infrastructure improvements bond. She is also a former a textbook designer and editor.