Erie County has the sixth highest property taxes among 1,824 counties in the United States, according to a new study released Monday by County Executive Mark Poloncarz. In it, he points to a high number of local school districts as one of the factors pushing property tax rates up.
About half of all property taxes levied in Erie County are school taxes, according to the report.
Poloncarz is calling on smaller school districts to consider merging in order to save taxpayers money on administrative costs. He says millions of dollars can be saved without needing to close schools or cut teaching jobs.
Erie County gave school districts $136 million in shares sales tax revenue in 2016-17. No plans for county to stop sharing that money. @WKBW
— Josh Bazan (@JoshBazan) April 16, 2018
This is an issue Poloncarz addressed in his state of the county address in March.
One hypothetical merger used as an example is Cheektowaga. The five districts in the town (Cheektowaga Central, Cheektowaga Sloan, Maryvale, Cleveland Hill and Depew), should they decide to consolidate, would save around $1.2 million in redundant administrative costs, according to Poloncarz. They would only need one superintendent, instead of five, for example.
"There are more full school districts in Erie County than combined cities and towns," Poloncarz said. "We need to look at this folks. This is a legitimate issue."
Poloncarz could not say what these potential mergers would mean for tax rates across the county. The report did not project those. To put the Cheektowaga example in perspective, that $1.2 million in potential savings is part of $190 million in combined budgets for the five districts.
"If you do not close a high school in one of those cases, you do not effectuate most of the savings that the academic research has projected," Dr. Bruce Fraser, executive director of the Erie County Association of School Boards (ECASB), explained.
Dr. Fraser said Erie County schools actually stack up well compared to other schools in the state. Districts in Erie County raise less taxes per pupil than the NYS average, according to ECASB. The group also points out that schools in Erie County are below the NYS average for central administrative costs per student (NYS average: $333, Erie County average: $244).
Poloncarz said, in addition to savings from administrative costs, consolidating districts opens up the opportunity to get additional state funding. Districts that merge are entitled to a 40% increase in operating aid for five years and an additional 10 years of enhanced aid in years after.
While Poloncarz is publicly asking smaller districts to consider consolidation, he does not have the authority to begin the process himself. Any potential merger would need to go through a process involving local school boards, the New York State Education Department and residents. All communities involved in a potential merger would need to approve doing so in a public vote.