Editor's Note: Robert Germino is a former candidate of the 13th Assembly District seat and a Glen Cove resident.
Once again, we enter the school budget season: school boards threaten “draconian” program cuts; property-tax levy increases are still greater than inflation; budget supporters rally “it’s for the children;” their opponents are demonized; the overtaxed and unemployed residents vote with their feet; repeat this process next year. The casualties are (a) New York property-taxpayers who still live in the highest taxed state in the nation, (b) the students who lose their educational programs, and (c) common sense.
You, the voter, can change this process. As you cut wasteful spending from your budget during tough economic conditions, you must empower your school boards to do the same. This begins with lobbying your state representatives to repeal draconian mandates. Here are some recommendations.
- Repeal the Wicks Law. This law requires separate plumbing, heating/ventilation/air conditioning, and electrical contracts of a certain threshold (e.g., greater than $1.5 million in Nassau, Suffolk, and Westchester Counties). While those who crafted this law may have had good intentions, according to the New York State Conference of Mayors and Municipal Officials (NYCOM), this mandate adds an additional eight to 30 percent cost to school construction projects.
- Exempt school districts from paying “prevailing union wages” on construction projects. The Empire Center’s “Blueprint for a Better Budget” stated, “this adds 28 percent to total project costs upstate and 76 percent to project costs downstate.”
- Require all new school employees to accept defined-contribution pension plans. This 401(k)-type plan caps pension contributions by the employer (you, the taxpayer) at a certain amount. It empowers the employee to make his or her own investment decisions, gives the employee a portable investment if he or she chooses to change careers, and limits risk to the employer. Under the current defined-benefit model, school districts face explosive costs. The New York State School Boards Association (NYSSBA), therefore, supports offering defined-contribution plans to employees (this is already an option for SUNY and CUNY employees).
- Repeal the MTA payroll tax. This tax applies to all employers in the 12 counties of the Metropolitan Commuter Transportation District. It was a bailout for the dysfunctional MTA; however, it is still insufficient to close the MTA's forecasted budget gaps. Last year, it cost Glen Cove School District $140,000 and all school districts in the 13th Assembly District over $2.1 million. You not only pay the school districts' portion of the MTA payroll tax via your property taxes but also fund their reimbursement from the state.
- End the Triborough Amendment. It requires you to fund pay increases to public unions despite expiration of their contract. As NYSSBA Executive Director Timothy G. Kremer said, "If a contract expires, the terms of the last year of the contract should continue, unsupplemented by step increases, until a new contract goes into effect." Furthermore, NYCOM stated, "[It] undermines the collective bargaining process by discouraging unions from offering concessions or givebacks since, as long as no agreement is reached, the terms of the current contract remain in effect."
While some may find these recommendations unpleasant, the alternatives to mandate relief are far worse. If we wish to grow our communities, high property taxes must not continue to force taxpayer relocation. In our discussions, let us follow leadership examples such as the Brentwood Teachers Association. This union agreed to freeze pay increases among other concessions. Their actions averted massive layoffs and additional cuts to student programs.