School Board Solidifies 2018-19 Sag Harbor Tax Levy Increase

School Board president Diana Kolhoff, center, leads a discussion on the 2018-19 school tax levy on March 26. Christine Sampson photo

The Sag Harbor School Board on Monday settled on a tax levy increase of 3.51 percent for the 2018-19 budget, with school officials projecting the total budget as $41.54 million.

If all of the different schools’ and departments’ budgets are incorporated as presented to the school board, and if voters approve that budget on May 15, the year-over-year overall increase in spending would be $1,637,279, or 4.1 percent.

“It’s well below the tax levy limit, and it puts us in a consistent stance with where the district fell last year, which was 3.49 percent,” Superintendent Katy Graves said Wednesday. “What you want is consistency. We always try to do what’s best for children, fair for adults and what the community can sustain. I think it puts us in a very sustainable situation moving forward.”

The tax levy increase is higher than the “2 percent tax cap” language that many people are used to hearing because of factors such as real estate development within the district and budget exclusions for capital projects.

The vote to adopt the 3.51-percent tax levy increase was 4-2, with four members of the board also declining to support a request from two others for more information before they decided on a tax levy increase to present to the community.

Administrators presented four options to the board: tax levy increases of 4.02 percent — which is the maximum the district could pursue under New York State’s law limiting tax levy increases — or 3.99 percent, 3.51 percent and 2.07 percent.

All board members agreed that the highest two options should be avoided, following the district’s trend the last few years of not reaching for the largest-possible tax levy increase. However, board members Susan Lamontagne and Chris Tice said they wanted information on an option in between 2.07 percent and 3.51 percent, specifically a 3 percent option. The rest of the board, minus Stephanie Bitis, who was absent, declined their motion to ask school business administrator Dr. Philip Kenter to provide that additional information.

In each of the four options, the projected budget remained the same at $41.54 million, but the difference between those scenarios would be how much the district dipped into its savings and reserve funds to make up for lost tax revenue. The district has about $1.6 million in its “unassigned fund balance,” an account where unspent budget funds remain, often referred to as “savings” by school officials. With the tax levy increase approved by the school board on Monday, the district will likely use $282,424 from that $1.6 million.

Ms. Tice questioned whether the district could dip into that fund even more as a give-back to taxpayers and further off-set the tax levy increase.

“This year particularly, we’ve been hearing how healthy we are financially,” she said. “Have we looked at this and said maybe we should give back the taxpayers some money versus how much we can get away with under the tax cap? If we have extra money, it should go back.”

But board member Alex Kriegsman disagreed, saying it was more important to maintain healthy reserves, which in turn help the district maintain its excellent credit rating. That allows the district to borrow money at lower interest rates, which saves money in the long term. Mr. Kriegsman said he thought a 3.51-percent tax levy increase “strikes the best balance.”

“We’re going lower than the limit by a greater margin than we’ve ever gone since the tax levy limit has been in place,” he said.

The next budget workshop is planned for Wednesday, April 18, at 6:30 p.m. at Pierson Middle-High School. The board is expected to formally approve a spending plan that night.

Monday’s budget workshop also included presentations by Sag Harbor Elementary School principal Matt Malone and Pierson principal Jeff Nichols, who both explained their respective spending plans would largely be flat.

Mr. Nichols did mention the potential for a future “wish list” bond project: a “wet lab” for a marine science program at Pierson. Modeled after programs at schools in Southampton and Westhampton Beach, such a wet lab could cost around $1 million.