Saranac Lake school taxes may rise

Early budget look shows capital project, state aid cut drive district’s tax cap up to 6%

SARANAC LAKE — Taxpayers within the bounds of the Saranac Lake Central School District might see a tax increase soon, according to an early draft of the 2019-20 budget given to the school board on Wednesday night.

The tax levy for the 2018-19 budget was $20,614,714. The tax levy limit for 2019-20 is currently at $21,851,177. The difference is an increase of more than $1.2 million, a 6 percent proposed increase for taxpayers.

Due to special circumstances, that 6 percent increase would be within the state tax cap, which begins at a 2 percent base.

How the tax cap grew

Before exclusions, the maximum levy allowed by the state for the 2019-20 SLCSD budget would’ve been $21,114,635 — a 2.4 percent increase, according to documents submitted by the district to the New York State Comptroller’s Office.

To exceed this, the district would require a supermajority vote of 60 percent by those who live in the district.

However, a $736,542 exclusion is added to the proposed levy because of a reduction in state aid and increasing capital expenditures. This brings the cap to 6 percent.

Very preliminary

Tax rates are not yet determined. The district includes seven townships whose assessments determine what a taxpayer is actually responsible for.

These spending figures are according an early draft of the budget as not all numbers are in yet. The district is evaluating requests by administration and department supervisors.

Current requests and projected expenditures, at $33,842,286, are half a million dollars over the maximum revenues that could be collected with a 6 percent tax levy increase — $33,375,426.

Reasons for increase

District Superintendent Diane Fox said a couple of main factors are leading to the potential tax increase: a decrease in state aid, and costs from a $18.75 million capital project.

Fox said the district knew that undertaking the capital project in 2017 would cause a bump in the tax levy next year. As a result, this year’s proposed budget includes a $378,469 increase in debt service toward the $9.7 million the district has borrowed toward the project.

“Because the total amount borrowed increased, the interest increased,” wrote School Business Executive Cindy Moody in an email. “The district is only borrowing what is necessary as the $18,750,000 capital project progresses.”

The project, approved by voters in 2017, is ongoing, with renovations and improvements to the Saranac Lake High School, Petrova Elementary and Saranac Lake Middle School, and Bloomingdale Elementary School.

The decrease in state aid this year is in part due to an increase a couple years ago. Last year’s budget included an average 1.44 percent tax decrease for taxpayers.

“The reason for that is because we did a huge emergency abatement project at Petrova.” Fox said. “It was $2 million. We had to redo the third floor of Petrova before we were done because we found vermiculite, which is considered to be possibly asbestos containing, and it was loose and blowing above the ceilings.”

While the state will distribute aid for the capital project over the next 15 years, for an emergency project like the asbestos abatement in 2017, the state disbursed aid immediately, in a lump sum — more than a million dollars.

“Which is why we had a negative tax cap,” Fox said. “It was a check for a million dollars, rather than million dollars spread out over 15 years. And that’s part of the tax cap calculation, to see what we can go out to the voters with. And because we got so much in state aid, we could ask less from the voters.”

The district will also receive less state aid because it’s coming to the end of paying off a 1998 capital project.

Special ed aides

Additionally, estimated salaries for non-instructional staff are estimated to increase by $354,473. The bulk of this is due to the hiring of 12 new classroom aides this year to address special education student needs, according to Moody.

“This was not known when the 2018-19 budget was prepared, so the new aides were not included in that budget. They have been added into the 2019-20 budget,” Moody wrote.

She said the average salary of a new classroom aide is $22,833 — so around $273,996 was added to the budget.

“This is the first time (the school board) got kind of the whole package deal,” Moody said. “To see what the revenues look like, what the expenditures look like, and getting to the bottom line.”

Moody said health insurance costs for the district have increased as well, by about 10 percent.

“We had quite a few people sign up for insurance that weren’t originally taking it,” Moody said.

Art teacher

One of two full-time art teaching positions at Saranac Lake High School will not be renewed in the proposed budget.

Fox is proposing to eliminate the position, and split the job with another position that she said would’ve otherwise been eliminated, an elementary teaching job.

“I do have another art teacher in the district who is currently filling a position that is temporarily vacant. And so I had another elementary position that I could have reduced, but I’ve decided to keep it,” Fox said. “That gives me the flexibility that she could work full-time art if I truly had a need for full-time art, but she also is able to provide support in elementary.”

Proposed additions

A late bus run four days per week is proposed to be added. This is to allow students access to after-school activities who otherwise could not get a ride home.

“That will add some cost, but not significant,” Fox said. “It will be built into our bus drivers’ day so we will be paying for the extra time, but it doesn’t mean I have to hire anyone.”

Two full-time positions are proposed to be added — an aide and a bus monitor. Fox said both are to support incoming kindergarten students with special needs.

Fox said she’s also proposing the development of a new website for the district.

The district has made the first of three payments to fund an ongoing BOCES capital project. Saranac Lake’s portion of that is $2.6 million, of which $330,00 was paid this school year, with $1.3 million proposed to be paid this year in July. However, this will be paid out from the school district’s fund balance — money it has saved in years past.

Proposed reductions

Fox is proposing to cut distance learning from the curriculum, saving the district $67,290.

“We’ve had it for three years now, and that’s where our kids could take classes in other schools. It’s never really been smooth sailing because our school periods don’t match with a lot of the other schools.”

She said at the program’s height, nine students participated.

Also proposed to be cut is the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service, saving the district $41,465.

“They’ve been helpful, but we don’t feel we need to continue with that,” Fox said.

A $150,000 reduction is proposed from the curriculum and instruction fund. Fox said this is because the district is buying a new elementary math curriculum this year, so the funds are not needed in next year’s budget.

Next steps

At the March 20 school board meeting, the school board will receive a revised budget with updated numbers. Moody said at that point, the budget should be just about done.

She said the April 3 meeting is when the board will consider adopting the budget.

The public hearing for the budget will be on May 8. The public vote on it is May 21.