Bridgehampton School Budget Falls Just Short Of Permission To Pierce Tax Cap; White, Comfort, Chmielewski Elected

Bridgehampton School Superintendent Bob Hauser, at left, oversees as votes are counted during the 2021 Bridgehampton School Board vote inside the gymnasium of the Bridgehampton School on Tuesday.

The Bridgehampton School District’s budget narrowly failed to win the 60 percent voter support it needed on Tuesday night to be allowed to pierce the state-mandated tax cap.

The budget got 150 “yes” votes and 103 “no” votes, a 59.28 percent approval rate. Unlike budgets that do not pierce the state’s constantly shifting tax cap, which only need 50 percent approval from voters, state law requires that any budget that proposes increasing the tax levy by more than a given year’s cap get at least 60 percent support to be ratified.

“We are literally one or two votes away from being able to do what we need to do,” School Board President Ron White, who was reelected to another 3-year term on Tuesday night, said. “We gotta work. We’ve got another opportunity and we’ve gotta fight.”

Jo Ann Comfort fist-bumps Ron White after they both won seats on the school board following the 2021 Bridgehampton School Board vote inside the gymnasium of the Bridgehampton School on Tuesday night, 5/18/21

Along with Mr. White, two new members were elected to the school board. Jo Ann Comfort was the top vote getter with 205 votes, besting even the veteran Mr. White, and Angela Chmielewski grabbed the third open seat with 150 votes. Michael Gomberg got 91 votes and Dwight Singleton got 80.

Ms. Comfort said after the vote that she was excited to serve on the board but was very disappointed the budget had failed to win the requisite support.

“We really have to pass this budget, I think it was a good budget,” she said. “It was a rough year and we have to give our kids everything they need bouncing back from that.”

Bridgehampton was the only South Fork school to have its budget rejected by voters this year. The only other school district that had proposed piercing the cap, in Sagaponack, was approved by voters.

The state cap on tax levy increases this year was just 1.23 percent — the lowest it has been in five years — in a year when many districts had to incur expenses to adjust for remote learning amid the coronavirus pandemic and saw state education aid cut.

The $20.6 million 2021-22 budget represented a nearly $1.7 million increase in spending, or 8.8 percent over the current operating budget and would have required a $1.4 million increase to the tax levy, just shy of 9 percent. The budget would have required a 7 percent increase in the tax rate — but still would have only cost the owner of a house assessed at $1 million about $143 more in taxes.

District officials said they were disappointed with the narrow loss and would be evaluating how to proceed ahead of an anticipated re-vote next month.

“There weren’t any significant ‘extras’ if you will — this was a fairly lean budget to get us where we need to be in September,” District Superintendent Robert Hauser said. But Mr. Hauser also said he has faith that district voters will ultimately allow the district to spend what it says it needs. “I would predict that if we go out with either the same budget or a slightly different budget that the voters … will vote in favor.”

The district’s 2014-15 budget, which also pierced the state cap, was defeated in the first vote but passed by a broad margin in a second vote. The 2016-17 budget also pierced the cap and was approved on the first vote.

The district is now left to decide how to handle a re-vote on the budget. The School Board can decide to put the same budget up for a re-vote and bank on community outreach to either draw in more votes from supporters or change the minds of some who voted to reject the budget on Tuesday. Or it can make cuts and try to swing more naysayers in favor.

A lot will be on the line. If the budget fails a second time, the district will be bound to adopt a state-mandated “austerity” budget, which would require $1.4 million in non-essential spending be cut from the budget. That would likely mean all school sports and after-school enrichment programs would be unfunded and likely halted for the school year.

That prospect is a dark one, Mr. White said. He pleaded with those in the community who objected to the budget to trust that the School Board is acting in the best interests of everyone.

”Our board is made up of members of this community … we are paying these taxes too and we are hard-working people who feel that impact also,” he said. “We need our community to rest assured that the money we are spending is well spent.

“I am asking anyone who opposed the budget to get in touch with one of the [School Board] members, or the superintendent or the district business official, and let us talk you through what is necessary for our budget,” Mr. White said after the vote. “This budget is appropriate and we have worked really hard to keep not only the school district, but our community as a whole, in mind. Our kids need you.”