Sag Harbor Board Members Call for Zero Tax Levy Increase Option

Dr. Philip Kenter, the school business administrator, gives a budget presentation. Christine Sampson photo

As the Sag Harbor School District continued Monday to wade through the process of building next year’s budget, two school board members called for administrators to give them a zero tax-levy increase option for their consideration.

Board members Chris Tice and Alex Kriegsman said they recognize many homeowners in New York are impacted by the loss of their federal income tax deductions for state and local property taxes, and are also experiencing local property tax increases based on rising appraisals.

Most years since New York State imposed the “tax cap” in 2012-2013, administrators in Sag Harbor have typically presented the school board with a few tax levy options starting with the maximum increase and then ticking down a few notches from there.

“Our average homeowner has had a very steep hit to their pocketbook in the past year or two,” Ms. Tice said. “I would ask that one of these [options] shows no tax increase.”

This year, Sag Harbor’s maximum tax levy increase is 4.56 percent, or about $1.7 million, based on factors such as real estate growth in the district and exceptions for debt on capital projects in addition to the Consumer Price Index. According to documents on the district website, in the last 15 years, the closest Sag Harbor ever got to zero percent tax levy increase was 1.05 percent, back in 2006-2007.

Mr. Kriegsman – an attorney whose areas of expertise include land use and zoning law – echoed Ms. Tice’s suggestion and said property taxes themselves have been rising, too.

“We shouldn’t go into this saying, ‘Wow, this is great, let’s go up 4.5 percent,’” he said. “In the Town of Southampton and [Sag Harbor] Village, there have been big increases in appraised values so people are getting hit hard with property tax increases.”

He later said, “A flat zero would be a great thing to look at.”

School business administrator Dr. Philip Kenter said Monday he could provide a zero tax-levy increase option when he outlines possibilities for the school board to evaluate at the next workshop, on March 11.

Adopting a zero tax-levy increase for the 2019-2020 budget does not necessarily mean the district cannot increase spending — it would simply mean any increases would have to be offset by additional revenue or by using money in its “unassigned fund balance,” or the money it has leftover at the end of a previous school year. According to Dr. Kenter, the district is anticipating additional revenue next year from students coming to Sag Harbor from other districts who pay tuition for that choice. The district may also see an increase in state funding once New York State legislators complete their budget in the next few weeks.

But on Monday — during a budget workshop attended by three of the seven school board members — board president Diana Kolhoff warned that considering a zero tax levy increase could lead to budget cuts.

“That’s totally fine,” she said, “and then the next conversation is … if we’re trying to keep it zero, it’s got to come out of somewhere else, so which programs do we cut?”

Sag Harbor has not yet released a full draft of its proposed 2019-2020 budget.

Dr. Kenter on Monday outlined the district’s proposed transportation budget, which would tentatively see about an 8-percent increase over the current year, up to about $1.55 million.

Included is the purchase of one new full-sized school bus at a cost of $103,524, which would be paid for through a reserve fund. A labor contract settlement with the school bus drivers resulted in a 10.7-percent increase in salary costs, up to $489,768. Spending on field trips would remain the same at $90,000, while sports transportation would rise 2 percent, up to $76,500. Spending on bus fuel is also expected to increase by 2 percent, up to $119,130. The district is also anticipating continuing its bus contracts with the Wainscott and Sagaponack school districts, in which those schools pay Sag Harbor to transport their students, which is projected to bring in more than $415,000 in revenue for the district.