Express concern about school’s long-term finances
The Garrison school district has proposed a 3.3 percent property tax increase for 2023-24, which matches the state cap, but some parents argue that it’s fiscally irresponsible — because it’s too low.
The district is proposing $12.45 million in spending. The budget must be approved by voters in May.
The draft calls for the district to spend nearly $700,000 of its savings and make $220,000 in cuts, including changing art teacher Coulter Young from a full-time to part-time employee; eliminating the part-time Committee on Special Education chair and assigning those duties to the school psychologist; and dropping a bus from its contract fleet and adjusting routes to allow for one less driver, perhaps stopping service for any child who lives within 2 miles of the school.
Garrison’s “fiscal stress” has grown over the past two years after falling to zero in 2020, according to the state comptroller, who tracks each district’s finances to provide an “early warning” for problems. The formula considers savings, deficits and surpluses, cash and reliance on short-term debt for cash-flow.
The district had a stress level of 15 in 2022, up from 6.7 in 2021. A score of 25 or higher raises concern. By comparison, Haldane and Beacon each had zero fiscal stress last year, while Mount Vernon, the most vulnerable district in the state, scored 66.7.
The state also measures “environmental stress,” which consists of factors districts can’t control, such as property tax values and enrollment. In 2022, Garrison had a score of 30, which is the minimum that raises concern. Haldane and Beacon both scored zero.
Several parents at the Wednesday (March 29) meeting of the school board advocated more spending and a larger tax increase. If the district goes over the state tax cap, 60 percent of voters, rather than a simple majority, would need to approve the plan.
Last year, residents voted to override the cap and approved a 6.6 percent tax increase. But that came only after a proposed 9.18 percent increase was defeated.
“We need to ask more of our community,” said Ned Rauch, a former PTA president who has children at the school.
Another parent, Peter Lesser, said that “it’s pretty clear from the numbers that the [financial] future doesn’t look great. We should take action and work for what we know we need, which is continuous, slightly higher, increases than the minimum over the next two years.”
Charity Shumway distributed a flier that said: “We need to put forward and secure the vote for budgets that override the low percentage increases set by the tax cap.”
On the other hand, Lauren Biniaris said she supported the proposed budget because “it’s unrealistic to think that we can get ourselves out of this relatively quickly by asking our community to say over and over and over again, ‘Yes, I’ll pay more taxes.’ They’ve proven that they won’t do that.”
She added, however, that it was clear the district will need overrides. “Our tax rate is way too low to be sustainable,” she said.
Board members said that while another request to voters for an override was likely, getting one passed in May would be difficult. “We essentially communicated a promise or a commitment to the community that we would not seek an override this year,” said Trustee David Gelber.
Trustee Jocelyn Apicello asked whether the proposed budget was fiscally responsible for the long term. She said she would vote to send the budget as presented to voters but would have preferred to have seen alternatives.
The proposed budget includes spending about a third of the district’s savings, or $684,570, which would drop reserve funds to $1.44 million in June 2024. Of that, $900,000 can only be used for capital expenses and debt service. That would almost certainly mean the district will seek a tax-cap override in 2024-25, said Superintendent Carl Albano.
Albano said the district could get some relief from federal funds for pandemic expenses. It also has asked Assembly Member Dana Levenberg and State Sen. Rob Rolison to lobby for relief.
Under the state’s Foundation Aid formula, Garrison next year will receive an increase of about 3 percent, or $17,244, said Joe Jimick, the business administrator. By comparison, he said, other Putnam districts expect to receive an average of 23 percent. Garrison receives less state money because of its relatively high property values.
Even with a 3.3 percent increase, the Garrison tax levy will be the lowest in the county, by far, and among the lowest in the state (616th of 678 districts). Its levy is $9.75 per $1,000 of full value, meaning a $500,000 home is assessed $4,875 in annual taxes.
By comparison, Haldane’s tax rate is $16.97 per $1,000 and Carmel’s is $25.47. In a five-county area, only Pocantico Hills has a lower levy, at $9.25.
Jimick said the primary factors driving costs are debt service for capital projects ($119,756), a 5.5 percent increase in employee health-insurance premiums ($75,422), the electric costs for a new HVAC system ($69,000), an 8 percent increase in transportation costs ($58,567) and a 17 percent increase in security software costs ($25,267). There are details at gufs.org/business/23-24-budget-updates.