Long Island Assemblyman, Tom Alfano, Takes The Lead On The Education Front; Fiscal Equity, Property Tax Relief, And Commitment to Quality Schools Top Agenda
In a recent missive, The Community Alliance solicited ideas and suggestions -- both from the general public and from our elected representatives -- on ways we can begin to reduce the school property tax, while maintaining quality education for all of our children.
Today, one member of the New York State legislature, Assemblyman Tom Alfano, answers the call.
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First off, let me thank The Community Alliance for allowing me to express some thoughts regarding school funding and education in our communities. In the past, when the Alliance has asked for my opinions on subject matters impacting our neighborhoods, I have tried to be as direct as possible in my commentary. I will, therefore, approach this subject matter the very same way.
School funding has to change. It’s as simple as that. I have stood up and voiced my opinion on budget priorities regarding our schools consistently. In fact, I have taken the Governor to task regarding budgets and school aid packages. As many of you know, I have vehemently opposed budget proposals that would result in devastating consequences for our local communities. These were easy decisions to make as I truly believe that education is the great equalizer in today’s world. Because I feel so strongly about this issue, I have voted across party lines and over-rode the Governor on school aid and budget priorities not once- but over 140 times. Simply stated, I will not allow budgets to shortchange our schools and be balanced on the backs of taxpayers. Period.
Last year, I stood with community leaders, school districts, education professionals and taxpayers in calling for an overhaul and restoration of comprehensive operating aid to all districts statewide. This plan was not only embraced by school districts and taxpayers, but was carried by local media and applauded statewide. This plan would have eliminated flat aid packages in operating aid to our schools as a result of economic downturns associated with the September 11th terror attacks. It should be noted that some facets of that plan were indeed incorporated in the final state budget document which realized increases in school aid for all our local schools.
For the past two years, I have sponsored and passed the famed 2% bill which was co-authored with me by Assemblyman Tom DiNapoli, Deputy Speaker Harvey Weisenberg, Assemblywoman Earlene Hooper, Assemblyman Bob Barra and Assemblyman Charles Lavine. This legislation slowed the overall assessment tax shift from commercial business districts to residential taxpayers. The result? Taxpayers saved, in many cases, over the past two years, up to $400 off their school taxes through this legislation. This initiative was a bipartisan effort and was signed into law by the Governor. This legislation was developed to help taxpayers and blunt the blow of the ripple effect of re-assessment. But it’s not enough.
I strongly believe that Long Islanders from all communities need a more aggressive approach to our school tax challenges. First, I am a very strong supporter of regional costs. The fact is that a typical family on Long Island has an income far different from those in other parts of our State. It can be easily said, that salaries have a very wide scale when you compare a family in West Hempstead to, say, a town in Hamilton County. It is easy to see then, that school costs vary greatly throughout our state. That spells inequity to Long Island taxpayers.
The battles that are fought over state aid to localities are truly bi-partisan in nature. I, for one, am proud to stand with colleagues who want to exact change that will make a difference for our communities. To date, a strong regional approach has been taken in regard to state aid to schools. I will continue to work to make sure that we continue to do so.
In a previous Community Alliance op-ed piece, there were several passages relating to the current Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit. For the record, I was one of only four members of the Assembly Republican conference who voted to support the tenets of that plan in a floor vote resolution. In fact, I was the only Republican Long Island Assemblymember to do so. I cast that important vote to help become a part of the solution that would ensure that schools obtain the necessary resources for them to complete their mission of educating our children and to relieve taxpayers of the mounting tax burden here at home. Simply stated, I want school funding that meets our community’s needs, but is sensitive to the taxpayer pocketbook.
The plan I supported was a state-wide approach that would address the requirements set forth by the Court of Appeals decision. In that package, the proposal calls for a school aid increase totaling $6.1 billion and a statewide capital plan phased-in over 5 years. In essence, the plan would commit real dollars and result in property tax relief while providing an educational plan that meets the needs of all our students regardless of where they live.
While this comprehensive plan will be direct tax relief for property taxpayers, I will state for the record that I will not support any plan that has been characterized as a “Robin Hood approach” and will redirect state aid from suburban districts to New York City. That initiative is a non-starter that will not receive my support. Incidentally, I outlined my opposition to this idea in a letter to the Editor to our local newspapers signed by many of my Assembly colleagues.
The funding mechanism for any plan is where the true battle will lie. I support using a holistic approach where we demand accountability and cut spending from agencies and authorities. In addition, I strongly support a reprioritization of agency funding based upon the needs of our State’s citizens. I believe that programs should be means tested and, if they don’t work, they should be eliminated. In essence, we need a consistent cost-benefit analysis of how our government’s services perform.
Just a few weeks ago, it was announced that State receipts show an actual budget surplus in the amount of almost 1 billion dollars in state coffers. That surplus should be returned to the taxpayers in the form of school tax relief.
I will support a methodology that has the State do more in this regard by increasing funding to districts, accountability in appropriation by local school boards and flexibility by local districts to develop their educational standards district by district.
In addition, I will be proposing a modernization to the STAR program. As we all know, STAR was enacted in 1997 to provide tax relief for homeowners across the State. Although this program now provides over $2.6 billion in school property tax relief for the 2005-06 school year, it has not kept pace with increasing school property taxes and increasing home valuations.
For instance, the current STAR program is based on a 1997 statewide median home valuation of approximately $112,000. Therefore, the STAR program provides an enhanced STAR exemption of $50,000 (45%) for most seniors and a Standard STAR exemption of $30,000 (27%) for all other homeowners. Due to regional cost factor, residents in Nassau County receive an enhanced STAR exemption of $109,415 (45%) and a Standard STAR exemption of $65,649 (27%).
Under a plan and bill that I will be advancing this New Year, the STAR program would be changed to recognize 2005 median home valuations. This is necessary since the median home valuation has increased by 52% since 1997. Therefore, the Enhanced STAR exemption would increase to $76,000 (45%) for most seniors and the Standard STAR exemption would increase to 46,000 (27%) for all other homeowners. Due to regional cost factors, residents in Nassau County would receive an Enhanced exemption of $166,125 (045%) and a Standard exemption of $99,675 (27%).
Overall, this STAR initiative would provide an additional $1.3 billion dollars in school property tax relief. And, the bottom line for the average STAR recipient would realize an increase of 53% in their STAR savings under this legislation. This initiative means real savings and real relief.
As you can see, the issue of school district funding is complex. It’s my belief that we need to look at all sides of the issue in order to come up with a plan that will address the needs of all our communities. Clearly, the status quo is not acceptable and must be reformed. I have voted my conscience on this issue and stand ready to be a part of a consensus that will provide meaningful change. My priority will be to ensure that our children get the resources they need to become a success. I will work to make sure that our community gets the very best school aid package possible. I will work toward equity and ensuring that our seniors get the help they need so that they can continue to live on Long Island. I will work to help relieve our school taxes by supporting real reform that channels aid, resources, and tax relief to our communities.
Assemblyman Tom Alfano,
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The Community Alliance thanks Assemblyman Alfano for his contributing Guest Blog, and moreover, for his unsurpassed commitment to our Long Island community, in general, and to the future of our children, in particular.
Readers can learn more about Assemblyman Alfano by clicking HERE to visit his NYS Assembly website.
Your comments, of course, are welcome here, as always, and we again invite both the electorate and the elected to chime in at any time with thoughts, initiatives and viable alternatives. It is, after all, our Long Island, our tax dollars, and our children's tomorrows that are on the line. The time has come for all of us, if not to lead, then, at the very least, to get on board. We can no longer afford to blindly follow the piper, let alone to continue to pay for that less than medodious tune.
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UPDATE: On December 7, 2005, members of Nassau County's School Boards met at a closed-door "summit" organized by County Executive Tom Suozzi.
Read Newsday's coverage online at School Boards Brainstorming For Aid.
Was your School District represented?
More on the great school financing debate to follow. Stay tuned. . .