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Mineola Discusses Preliminary School District Budget

Preliminary numbers suggest school district can meet 2 percent cap on tax levy

The Mineola School District presented its preliminary numbers of the 2012-13 district budget at its Dec. 19 meeting at the Willis Avenue School. With a new 2 percent tax cap enacted by New York State, Long Island school districts face considerable challenges heading into the budget season.

The district is aiming at 2 percent for the 2012-13 school year. Mineola has been at or under 2.5 percent for four consecutive years without cutting programs.

Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the 2 percent tax cap into law this summer. The tax cap limits the increase in property taxes each year for school districts and local municipalities to 2 percent, or the rate of inflation.

If a community chooses to increase taxes more than the tax cap allows, a 60 percent vote in a school budget can override it.

The 2011-12 approved budget was $84,221,638 with a budget-to-budget increase of $4,093,065 and a tax levy of 2.37 percent ($74,798,377). Revenue findings, including state aid last school year totaled $7.3 million with the appropriated fund balance at $2.1 million.

For the coming fiscal year, finance superintendent Jack Waters calculated that a 2 percent increase on last year’s tax levy is approximately $1.5 million. Projected increases in budget are preliminarily set at $2.27 million. With those increases, the district would be $770,000 over the cap.

The district is currently in contract discussions with all of its unions. The district is obligated to pay STEP increases, which is an average of 1.5 percent (approximately $700,000). Waters also estimated pension costs to total $700,000. With health costs, Waters projected an increase of $400,000.

Waters stated that Empire, the district health provider, notified Mineola in May to estimate the health costs of the district since Empire works on a calendar year basis. According to Waters, Empire representatives initially told Mineola to expect an increase of 19 percent in health costs.

However, Waters said Empire recently issued health increases of 3 percent. “We were saved in that regard,” he said.

With general insurance costs, Waters approximated $100,000 on that budget line, with special education costs at $300,000 and a bus replacement plan of about $70,000.

Mineola received ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funds over the last two years. A portion of that stimulus money was allocated to special education costs. The district was not awarded it again, therefore, according to Waters, the general fund has to pick up the expense of the loss of ARRA.

“Last year we had all this ARRA money that replaced state aid for a couple of years,” Waters said, concerning special education. “That stopped this year so we have to make up a shortfall in some of our special education costs because where we were getting this ARRA money in the past, I have to budget for the loss of that money next year.”

With a deduction of the Meadow Drive School project in the 2011-12 transfer-to-capital of approximately $500,000, the district would be about $270,000 over the cap. That project was budgeted for in the general fund, paid for out of the tax levy and that brings relief to the 2012-13 tax levy.

Other possible offsets to the excess include next year’s state aid runs, which are unclear at this time, according to Waters, retirements and excessing of staff due to the closure of Willis Avenue School in September.

“If we can only go up 2 percent, we can only go up about $1.5 million,” Waters said. “So how are we fitting all our major account code increases and either not exceed 1.5 [million] and if we do, what’s the plan to get it down below that number?

“We don’t know what the retirements look like yet,” he said. “We won’t know that until January. If 270 [thousand] is our number, then we’re in very good shape and will be comfortable and confident that we can present a budget and levy that remains within 2 percent as prescribed by the governor.”