Whether Riverside School District 96 “taxes to the max” this year will probably all come down to school board President Mary Rose Mangia.
Next week, the District 96 Board of Education will vote on its annual tax levy. A public hearing on the levy will take place on Nov. 19 shortly before the start of the school board’s regular meeting.
During the meeting, the school board will vote on whether to accept the recommendation from the administration to levy the maximum amount in property taxes allowed by law, which District 96 — like most school districts and other units of local government — routinely does.
But this year will be no pro forma vote.
The three members of the school board who were elected in April — Randy Brockway, Rachel Marrello and Mangia — all campaigned against what they called the “tax-to-the-max” policy.
At the board’s finance committee meeting on Nov. 5, Brockway said he would not vote for a maximum levy. Marrello also seemed to be leaning against voting for a maximum tax levy as she expressed interest in supporting a lesser increase.
Board member Mike O’Brien has been the sole vote against the maximum tax levy ever since he was elected to the school board in 2011 and said last week that he continues to oppose levying the maximum amount allowed by law.
“Businesses are always challenged to do more with less, and I think the school district has never had that challenge placed in front of them,” O’Brien said.
With O’Brien, Brockway and probably Marrello all likely to vote against the maximum tax levy, it would put Mangia in the difficult position of breaking a tie if Lisa Gaynor, David Kodama and Art Perry continue their past practice of voting in favor the maximum tax levy.
Perry intends to vote for the maximum tax levy.
“Because of the tax caps I feel that we need to capture the revenue that we can so that the school district remains in good financial shape,” Perry said. “I think we need to be fiscally responsible, but there is no way I’m going to support a reduction in revenue to support our schools.”
What will Mangia do when the roll call gets to her and the vote is tied 3-3?
She’s told the Landmark she isn’t ready to say.
“I do have a pretty good sense of which way I’m leaning,” Mangia said.
It will be a tough vote whichever way she goes. Either Mangia goes against her campaign rhetoric and votes the way she criticized others for voting or she turns her back on the recommendation of the new administration.
In comments made to the Landmark, Mangia seemed to indicate that she is leaning towards voting against the maximum levy or at least exploring other options of returning some money to taxpayers.
“I definitely feel if I choose to go against what I said in my campaign I owe a very, very detailed explanation to the community, let’s put it that way,” Mangia said last week. “I take my pledge seriously.”
Mangia said that she agrees with O’Brien that the district has never been really challenged to look hard at cutting costs.
Mangia expressed interest in the idea of levying the maximum amount to preserve the tax base and then abating a portion of the proceeds back to the taxpayers. In the past two years, for example, Forest Park District 91 has abated approximately $1.5 million to taxpayers.
At last week’s finance committee meeting, Zack Zayed, District 96’s director of finance and operations recommended the district levy $23.7 million for tax year 2013 to be paid in 2014.
That’s an increase of about $413,000 over the $23.3 million the district levied last year or an increase of just under 2 percent. The property tax cap law limits this year’s increase in the levy to 1.7 percent (the rise in the Consumer Price Index) plus the value of new construction in the district, which Zayed estimated to be about $400,000.
“I’m just making sure that I will get what the district’s allotted in taxes,” Zayed said.
Zayed strongly recommended that the board vote for a levy increase of 4.9 percent over the 2012 levy. He noted that the district is obligated to pay approximately $1.15 million a year until 2022 to pay off the $10 million in debt certificates issued to help pay for the recent renovation of all the district’s schools.
He noted that costs such as health insurance, energy, food and fuel tend to rise by more than the Consumer Price Index.
By levying 4.9 percent, the district will be able to capture tax revenue generated by new construction, which is not subject to tax caps. However, the district will receive less than a 4.9-percent increase due to the limitation related to the CPI.
“I’m not taxing 4.9 percent,” Zayed said. “I’m just making sure that I can get the maximum I can get.”
And Zayed said that he thought the state legislature might enact a pension reform bill before the end of this year that would start shifting the employer portion of the cost of teacher pensions from the state to local school districts.
However, state Rep. Michael Zalewski (D-Riverside), a member of the legislature’s joint pension reform committee, told the Landmark that he did not foresee the legislature voting into law any pension cost shift this year.
“Whomever said that was wrong,” Zalewski said.