Last year at this time, residents in the Southampton Town section of the Riverhead School District learned that their school tax rate for 2010-11 was increasing by 22 percent, while residents in the Riverhead Town section of the same district got a school tax rate reduction.
This year, however, is different.
After three straight years of big school tax increases in Southampton Town — which included hikes of 14.6 percent and 14.5 percent, while increases in Riverhead Town during the same period were just 1.16 percent and 2.67 percent — Riverhead’s portion of the district will see a tax rate increase of 5.56 percent for 2011-12. Southampton’s increase will be 4.89 percent.
At the time of the Riverhead School District’s budget vote in May, tax rate figures were not available, but officials said the overall tax levy increase, which is the amount of taxes raised in the entire district, was 4.93 percent.
“All we do is set the levy, we have nothing to do with how the tax rates are determined,” said Riverhead School Superintendent Nancy Carney, who said the towns determine those rates.
Vince Taldone, president of the Flanders, Riverside and Northampton Community Association, which represents the three hamlets in the Southampton Town portion of the Riverhead School District, said he was “pleased” by the news.
“However,” he added, “the Southampton portion of school taxes has increased dramatically over the past several years, creating a pressing financial burden on the portion of the town least able to afford the higher costs.
“I breathe a sigh of relief for this year but remain concerned about addressing the problem for the future,” Mr. Taldone said.
Riverhead Town assessor Lavern Tennenberg said the assessed value of the district and the town’s equalization rate — a number assigned by the state that’s intended to represent the percentage of real market value at which a town assesses property — determine how the tax levy is divvied up between the towns.
According to Ms. Tennenberg, the school district’s assessed value in Riverhead Town rose by just 7/10 of a percent, she said.
“It barely budged,” she said.
But in Southampton Town, it went down.
The Southampton section of the district also is paying a lower percentage of the overall school tax levy than the Riverhead side, but since the assessed valued there dropped too, their tax rate increased, Ms. Tennenberg explained.
“You can’t just look at the rate,” she said. “It’s what you are actually paying in taxes that matters.”
If the tax rate increased, but a person’s assessment dropped, they might still pay less in taxes, she said.
The town also applied $1,699,102 of the Community Preservation Fund’s payments in lieu of taxes Southampton applied to reduce its Riverhead School District taxes this year. That number was up from $1,466,741.
The state comptroller has said in audits that the town was using the CPF PILOTs incorrectly and had used too much of the fund to lower Riverhead school taxes in the past.
Southampton Town and state officials have both said they’re looking for solutions to wild tax swings in both the Southampton and Riverhead portions of the Riverhead School District. (A small portion of the district is also in Brookhaven Town.)
Discontinuing a recent practice of updating property assessments annually is one possible solution Southampton officials are considering.
Southampton Town reassesses properties every year while Riverhead Town hasn’t reassessed since 1980.
“If we’re getting slammed on school taxes by doing it every year, then I would advocate backing off doing it every year,” Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said earlier this year in a campaign forum.
Because Southampton reassesses annually, its equalization rate is 100 percent, while Riverhead’s is about 15 percent of market value. Riverhead officials say they have no plans to reassess.
State Assemblyman Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) have proposed a bill they hope will eliminate tax rate spikes in the school district by proposing a special equalization rate for districts that are split between two or more towns.
“Something has to be done soon or the revitalization of the area — so long sought by residents and local officials — will be stymied by escalating school taxes that act as a disincentive to investment in the area,” Mr. Taldone said.