Caseythoughts It seems the local 'elected representatives' are at it again, this time the Ithaca City School Board are the culprits.

If you haven't heard, they have found a new way to potentially burrow into your wallet and bank account. According to usually reputable sources, the ICSD board is considering raising a new and stupendous amount of cash by placing a three per cent 'sales tax' on your utility bill. Not just your ever-burgeoning electric bill, by the way. All utilities, including telephone, cable and natural gas, as a utility is defined. Yes, the Ithaca City School district now wants to add a 3% tax on your home heating and utility bills in addition to taxing your phone bill (not just landline, apparently) to cover their butts, oops, I mean their budget (also known as the hungry caterpillar).

Some facts for you to consider, and it's important to note that even if you are in a surrounding school district, you can bet your local school board members are watching closely, since this tax has been previously authorized by the New York State legislature. More questions about that in a moment.

ICSD raised over $90 million in their last fiscal year by property taxation alone. New York State added another $36 million in state aid in the last school year. Ithaca spends over $23,000 per student which supposedly is 'on a par' with the NY state average, and this 'average' is obviously skewed by New York city, Long Island, Buffalo, Syracuse and Rochester spending figures. That 'average' of $23K is the highest in the nation, by the way, and is also significant because NY has been losing population, but still outspending any other state in the union. If you think about it, $23,000 a year per student is higher than the typical annual net wages earned by an Ithaca resident who doesn't own property (the target of this sales tax).

There are other sources of income for the school district, but let the above numbers sink in. Over $126 million every year, and the Ithaca school board says that is not enough. Of course, we need to take into account the fact that they negotiated a more than 20% pay increase for their employees and then announced and approved it AFTER the school budget and board elections, well...

The board members state that because of the wage increases, in addition to the statewide 'tax cap' (which was meant to slow down spending increases, but fails to do so due to exploding assessments) that they want to be 'more equitable' in their charges, and tax more than just property owners. Do these people honestly think that only property owners pay property tax? Do they think that their constituents believe that? Doesn't the 'affordability' question come into play with unaffordable rents being driven by property taxation?

A couple of points to be made, if you please, dear board members. First, using the concept of 'more equitable' is a non-starter, and is in reality a falsehood. There is nothing 'equitable' about a sales tax. It is quite simply a 'regressive' tax in that it hits lower income wage earners the hardest, as a percentage of take home pay. So, using the term 'equitable' may appeal to those who think 'socially' but it is ignorant of economic fact. We've seen a lot of this, lately, haven't we? They (the ICSD board) are having a harder and harder time explaining their exorbitant spending even to better-off residents, so now they are looking to lower and middle class wage earners. These struggling folks in the Ithaca school district are already dealing with unreasonably high rents, high food bills (higher than surrounding counties), high gasoline prices (up to 20 cents higher per gallon than Cortland county) escalating heat and lighting bills (NYSEG is asking for a 10% increase in rates next year) and now Ithaca wants to tack on a 3% sales tax on phone, cable and utility bills with an ICSD billing address. How 'equitable'. How Ithaca.

One question, or perhaps two, and I need to be as blunt as possible to make my point. Did school board members who voted to accept the teachers' multi-year 20%+ pay raise know of this inevitable increase in budget spending prior to the budget vote? If so, were they guilty of holding that information from the public prior to the vote in May? I seem to remember news stories about 'continuing discussions and disagreements' a week or two before the vote. If the board knew of the pending terms of the labor agreement, and didn't disclose them prior to the public vote and their own vote to accept the contract, isn't that cause for righteous public anger? And, if they approved a budget and then the contract after the budget vote, how did they expect to pay for it? Unless they already knew they were going to attempt to ram this outrageous utility sales tax down the taxpayers' throats while no one was looking, of course. After all, the first 'hint' of this new proposed tax to cover their profligate spending didn't come out until this month of August: no one is supposed to be around, or pay attention.

The intent of this tax is to cover the 'lost' revenues' incurred by the 'tax cap' imposed by Albany, and the STAR program which has allegedly kept taxation of older residents in check. I kind of wonder, though, about when exactly this approval of local taxation authority got through Albany. Did Barbara Lifton vote for this bill? When? Did Tom O'Mara? And, while Governor Cuomo is signing it, wasn't he also harping on how unfair the federal limits on state and local tax (SALT) exemptions were to the NY taxpayer? Wouldn't this sales tax increase approved in many NY school districts push more New Yorkers above the $10,000 limit on federal exemption? And, when negotiating to purchase a home in the Ithaca School District, would the real annual tax bill be obscured by charging home owners in this nefarious manner?

So, the big question is, what are Ithaca taxpayers going to do about this? It is possible to be put into effect by a simple yes or no vote by the school board, all other approvals already given by Lifton, O'Mara, Cuomo et al, sometime in the recent legislative past, probably by another apres-midnight vote. Ithaca school board/budget voter turnout is historically abysmal, less than 25% is the norm, even when controversial candidates are on the ballot.

What would (could?) happen if Ithaca had the same type of turnout to a school board meeting, and the same heated exchanges, as, say, other 'causes' that generate so many flowery speeches, so much heated rhetoric? Suppose there was an Ithaca taxpayers' revolt (call it another 'green' revolution, but this time to commemorate the flow of money going into the black hole of the school district pocket), and, at that next school board meeting, taxpayer after taxpayer (including non-property owners who pay rent, pay utilities, have cable and carry a phone) stood up and told the ICSD school board that 'enough is enough', and starting asking potentially embarrassing questions about the proximity of the labor negotiations, the settlement/raises and the budget vote?

Wouldn't that be something? Of course, with almost no media coverage left in Ithaca except the truly caring weeklies, it would be a wonder if anyone heard about it that day, or the next. But, with or without media coverage of this potential 'revolt' at the next board meeting (and, I reiterate the importance of understanding that they only have to vote once for this proposed new taxation and then it's Q.E.D.) a decision to listen to taxpayers demanding an explanation and a 'No' vote would force the Ithaca School Board to do something that they have rarely done in the thirty plus years I've lived here: they will have to look at cutting the already bloated and profligate budget. And they can start with some explanations about the outrageous sums spent on 'administrators'.

Watch out Lansing, TBurg, Groton, Newfield, Dryden: if Ithaca taxpayers shrug their shoulders again and say they don't care by not raising hell (and hell hath no fury as an Ithacan raising hell) then your own local school board will be watching with interest. There's more money on that proverbial table, and it's your money. For now, that is. Remember, the world is run by those who 'show up'.