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December 6, 2010

City utility tax not likely to pass

Most school officials appear ready to drop plan

PLATTSBURGH — It was obvious to Fred Wachtmeister that the people who attended Plattsburgh City School's utility-tax hearing opposed the idea.

Still, if it came to a vote today, the School Board member would support it.

"The utility tax would cost me more out of pocket than an increase in the property tax," Wachtmeister said. "But I have to think about doing what I can to preserve the educational programs in the Plattsburgh City School District."

That view may not be shared by most school officials, who conceded there is overwhelming opposition to a utility tax that may not be a good match for a battered economy.

"Based on the comments received, this is not the time or economic climate to institute such," said Superintendent James "Jake" Short. "Regardless of its potential to alter certain property-tax burdens, its complexities are too much for those who spoke against it."

Under New York state law, the School District can impose taxes of up to 3 percent on all utility bills: electric, gas, phone and cell phone.

Plattsburgh City School officials said funds from a utility tax, if imposed, would not be considered additional revenue but used to lessen property-tax increases and salvage the education program.

More than 100 people attended a recent public hearing on the matter, and all 22 individuals who spoke opposed a utility tax.

Board member Clayton Morris feels a few misconceptions remain surrounding the utility tax, but correcting those discrepancies likely would not change anyone's mind.

"These are the times, and we are tired of taxes," Morris said. "I have made up my mind, but I will reserve that for the board meeting when we have a discussion."

The School Board meets again at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in the Duken School building.

"I hear constantly that we need to tax a different way and thought while this was not perfect, it might be a little bit different way of doing that, but people clearly disagree with that," Morris said.

Some community members feel the board never makes cuts, but Morris pointed out the School District dropped 20 positions over the last two years, and class sizes have increased.

"Unfortunately, I think we will have to cut back some more," he said. "These are programs we are talking about, and they are good programs, and we are going to lose some of them.

"I didn't join the board to do what we are going to have to do."

Stephen Krieg believes there are ways to decrease expenses.

"As you might guess, much of the increase in school budgets have come from the cost of health insurance," said the board member. "Many districts have gotten concessions from the unions in that area."

Across New York and nationwide, educational unions, sometimes by re-opening contracts, have agreed to concessions including changing health plans and contributing more for insurance costs, furlough days, salary deferments and raise reductions.

A report by an independent employee-benefits consulting firm suggested some local school districts increase employee and retiree contributions to premiums, modify eligibility requirements for health insurance so fewer part-time employees qualify and require a higher contribution toward health insurance when working spouses choose the district plan over that offered by their employers.

Krieg was not surprised by comments at the utility-tax meeting.

"There were some misconceptions about the tax, but I think that is because it is a complicated issue and very difficult for everyone to understand," he said. "For example, utility use by industry that is directly involved in production would be exempt from the tax. Presumably, lighting and heat would not."

He opposes it.

"I think that any new tax in this economic climate is a bad idea," Krieg said. "Also, I am generally opposed to any tax that further complicates a tax code that is already way too complicated."

The real issue, said Wachtmeister, is supporting the education program during challenging fiscal times when policymakers in Albany and Washington will not step up to the plate.

"There is no reason at all for Bush tax cuts for the wealthy to be allowed to continue on," he said. "The tax cuts themselves are an abomination, and to continue them for the wealthiest is just outrageous. Republicans are basically prostituting themselves for Wall Street money and large contributors, and that is clear as a bell."

The property tax will most likely be raised, Wachtmeister said, but how much depends on other money, such as a utility tax, which would also help avoid education cuts.

He further said pay has been stagnant for 20 or more years, and the private sector has been stripped of pay and benefits. Now it appears the public sector is the target, yet it is all tied in together.

"So a young teacher won't be able to buy that house or that car, and that hurts local business and means a smaller, less vibrant economy," Wachtmeister said.

E-mail Stephen Bartlett at: sbartlett@pressrepublican.com

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