Plan reflects operations increases, pandemic, state aid impacts
Proposed budget brings tax levy increases for Lewiston, Porter
By Terry Duffy
With the Lewiston-Porter School District in lockdown mode for the balance of the school year, the Board of Education held its annual budget/board candidates session Tuesday evening via Zoom for community members.
In her remarks, Dr. Patricia Grupka, Lewiston-Porter assistant superintendent for administrative services, discussed the development process for the proposed $49,092,666 Lewiston-Porter budget for fiscal year 2020-21.
“This has been a very challenging year as you can imagine,” Grupka said.
She explained the budget’s primary goals are to maintain current Lew-Port programs and staff. These include continuing one-on-one computing availability for students, the utilization of a tech director, and continuation of Lew-Port AP, honors and enrichment programs for students – while providing a safe environment for students and staff members.
“It’s really important – that focus on delivering a fiscally responsible budget,” Grupka said. Coupled with that is Lew-Port’s focus on updating its strategic plan and student progress initiatives. “Every year we get together and look at our strategic plan, talk about it in the district and community – what’s important and set goals.”
Grupka then turned her attention to budget concerns impacting the district. Included are: salary and benefit increases, including minimum wage and contractual increases for staff; the issue of unfunded mandates covering transportation and facilities requirements; the 2% tax cap; and the latest concerns stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, including numerous expenses to the district from the various adjustments required (including providing student lunches during the closure, and the purchase of masks and hand sanitizers, etc., for staff); and the resulting fiscal impact to New York state and school districts.
“Every year, salary and benefit increases will happen,” she said. “This year, we are facing minimum wage increases that are above the 2% cap, so, when you have salaries (and associated costs) increase … it’s very difficult to manage on a 2% tax cap, when the imposed increases are more than that.
“Every year we look at unfunded mandates; the special costs went up last year extremely. We were not unique in that. Every district faced big impacts to special education budgets (and) we are no exception.”
Other increases include transportation costs that are expected go up 4½% and the ongoing maintenance needs of district buildings and property.
Turning to the tax cap, Grupka commented, “It puts us in a little bit of a pinch.”
Coupled with that is the impending pandemic adjustments from New York state, which are expected to put further stress on school district budgets and planning.
“Now what we’re looking at is the state telling us that there may be a pandemic adjustment, and we could be looking at ‘fiscal quarterly take backs’ or withholding of our school aid. So we have some things that we got to think about,” Grupka said.
As far as funding sources, she said Lew-Port’s options are limited: “We don’t have many places where we can get revenue.”
Among them are the tax levy from district property owners and the district fund balance accounts.
Noting the loss of state aid, Grupka said, “We only have those sources of revenue, and when state aid goes down it really puts a burden on us to either changes to the tax levy or looking at fund balance. So, you see we are really increasing the use of fund balance this year. It is the taxpayers’ money and we’re happy to give it back. We saved it for a rainy day – this is that rainy day.”
Expenditure increases impacting the budget include health insurance, up approximately 8% for the coming year; special education costs, estimated to “go through the roof” according to Grupka; and wage increases and the cost of employment. Projected decreases include employee attrition, cuts to programming and staff development, and decreases in supplies.
“We didn’t eliminate programming, but we are cutting back where we can,” Grupka said. "We are hoping to balance the budget.”
Explaining how Lew-Port calculates its tax levy, Grupka said the district considers such elements as any local revenues, estimates in state aid, and cost assessments of district programs and those associated with educational planning (the strategic plan). Lew-Port then calculates those expenditure needs to anticipate revenues in the tax levy.
Grupka also focused on what she called the “unknowns” contained in the budget planning.
“The first thing we look at is there going to be a quarterly takeback from the state; the second thing is the pandemic adjustment,” she said. “So we really don’t know what our state aid is going to be at the end, because the state is actually talking about looking to withhold state aid payments.
“We calculated this budget based on what our current legislative budget was, which is less than the prior years, but that can still change. Then we assess programs and the costs. … We analyze the levy – revenues have to equal expenditures – and then we look at the tax levy divided by the assessments … the tax rate.”
Among the elements that impact the tax levy are the equalization rates (which differ for the towns of Lewiston and Porter) and the STAR rebates.
“This year it (equalization) impacted the communities greatly, but in opposite directions,” Grupka said.
She explained Lew-Port’s 2% tax cap for 2020-21, which totals $27,229,941, is actually 2.265%. This reflects a potential increase of $711,365, totaling $27,808,971 in tax cap revenue if approved by voters on June 9. Added to that is $2 million in appropriated fund balance revenue and $17,291,681 in anticipated state aid – a $363,087 drop from 2019-20. Still more income is derived from $12,661 in PILOT revenue, and $1,979,347 in “other revenue,” which brings Lew-Port’s total budget to $49,092,060 for voter consideration on Tuesday.
Grupka also noted the Lew-Port district receives annual funding from the New York Power Authority and the Niagara River Greenway Commission, which are dedicated to building projects on campus, plus revenues from various fees (community education, and auction sales, etc.)
As far as the impact to district property owners, Grupka said the budget was influenced by changes in the equalization rates for the towns of Lewiston and Porter.
“Lewiston’s equalization rate dropped this year (by) more points that Porter’s, so (Lewiston) will have a little bit (more) of an increase than Porter. So theirs (Lewiston’s) is 60 cents per thousand and Porter is going up 5 cents per thousand – a 2.3% change in Lewiston and a 2.2% change in Porter,” she said.
Broken down for owners of a $150,000 property in the Town of Lewiston: If approved, the budget represents a tax rate of $26.27 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or an estimated increase of $117.35, totaling $3,451.88 in estimated taxes.
For owners of a $150,000 property in the Town of Porter, the approved budget would represent a tax rate of $22.79 per $1,000 of assessed valuation, or an estimated increase of $6.45, totaling $2,939.91 in estimated taxes.
Factoring in the expected decrease in state aid, Grupka commented, “So when you impose the additional expenses that we will face – the regular cost of doing business – we really had to make a tremendous amount of cuts to balance this out.”
Should the $49.092 million budget go down to defeat, a contingency plan of $48,382,703 would go into effect on July 1 due to passage of state executive order 202.26, which established the date and method of voting.
If this were to happen Grupka, explained, “We would have to … keep the levy at zero, it would require an additional $709,000 of cuts from our current budget.
Already factoring in fund balance she said, “There’s no money to give back.”
Grupka noted the result would be “the elimination of all furniture, fixtures and equipment; all enrichment; all extracurricular activities … we would cut sports at some level, athletics; we would lose our community education program that we just started.”
“It would be devastating to our program,” Grupka said.