Taxpayers face 14ยข

increase

By louis c. hochman

T

he 2000-01 Millstone Township school district budget will carry with it a 14-cent tax increase if it is approved by voters next month, and administrators say most of the costs contributing to the increase are out of their control.

If the budget is rejected by voters on April 18, the Township Committee will review it and may recommend and/or negotiate reductions in the spending package. Typically, those reductions amount to an increase 1 or 2 cents lower than the tax rate proposed by the Board of Education.

The proposed budget for the 2000-01 school year totals $16.38 million, up more than $1.5 million from 1999-2000. Almost 87 percent of the budget comes from fixed costs that include salaries, benefits, tuition and energy, according to figures provided by the Board of Education.

"The majority of the increase to the tax base basically comes from fixed charges, from things we really can’t do anything about," Superintendent of Schools Dr. William J. Setaro said. "These are items where the costs go up every year, and we don’t have any control over them. About 12 percent of the budget is really under our direct control."

Setaro said health insurance has become more expensive over the last year, contributing to the increase. He said the school district will send 65 more students to Allentown High School next year, at about $10,000 in tuition each, and has had to purchase five new buses. He also said the district has hired new staff to keep the average class size in the low 20s and prevent it from reaching the 30s.

"These are the big numbers for this budget, and there isn’t a lot of flexibility in cost," he said.

Among the discretionary costs, comprising 11.9 percent of the budget, are purchased and professional technical services, purchased property services, supplies, textbooks, other purchased services and miscellaneous expenses.

Setaro said to save some money, the school district will buy fewer computers in 2000-01 than in 1999-2000.

Millstone Business Administrator Brian Boyle said the projected 13.81-cent tax increase, which brings the school tax rate to $1.7596 per $100 of assessed value, isn’t largely attributable to increased spending. He said the school district received less state aid than it is entitled to this year.

To the owner of a home assessed at $200,000, a 13.81-cent increase in the school tax rate translates into an increase of $276. With a tax rate of $1.7596 in place, the owner of that $200,000 home will pay about $3,519 in school taxes in the 2000-01 school year.

To the owner of a home assessed at $300,000, a 13.81-cent increase in the school tax rate translates into an increase of $415. With a tax rate of $1.7596, that homeowner will pay about $5,279 in school taxes in the 2000-01 school year.

To the owner of a home assessed at $500,000, a 13.81-cent increase in the school tax rate translates into an increase of $690. With a tax rate of $1.7596, that homeowner will pay about $8,798 in school taxes in the 2000-01 school year.

Boyle said while Millstone’s state aid increased this year by about 6 percent, it was entitled to more under the formula usually used to derive aid. He said because Millstone is a stabilized district, it lost aid money to other schools.

Under the standard formula entitlement, Millstone would receive $5,153,523, according the Board of Education’s analysis. After adjustments for stabilization aid, it received $4,380,336, a loss of $773,187.

The stabilization aid formula, adopted by the state this year, is designed to prevent drastic drops in state aid to school districts. In order to fund districts that are in danger of losing aid, the state takes money from districts that would otherwise see dramatic increases, Boyle said.

"They don’t want your aid to be increased more than 10 percent," he said. "They don’t want your aid to jump up and down uncontrollably, to have these super-steep increases or super-steep decreases."

Last year, Millstone schools received a 14 percent increase in aid, Boyle said.

Boyle said while the school district could estimate the aid it would receive using a standard formula, it did not know the impact of the adjustment for stabilization aid until receiving notice in early January.

"We don’t know if we’re going to get hit until we get hit," he said. "In January, they sent us a series of printouts that showed us what we were going to get and where we lost money, and how the numbers were derived."

Setaro said the Millstone school district is fighting the legislation that allows for stabilization aid.

"We want our legislators to know our concerns," he said.

The 14-cent increase taxpayers are facing is significantly larger than in recent years. Last year, the school tax stayed level, and increased about 2 cents over the two years prior.

"In the last four years we’ve had relatively small advances," Setaro said. "If you look at the growth this town has experienced, it’s been pretty fortunate to receive so little an increase over the last four years. And last year, to have a budget stay flat with no increase is pretty amazing."

In a presentation before the Township Committee last week, Setaro said while he expects some residents to be upset at the sizable increase, the budget is as slim as it could reasonably be. He said it underwent thorough evaluation, both by himself and by the board.

"I can assure you that the board looks at it even tougher than I look at it," Setaro told the committee on March 1.