Decision not to merge may prove costly

On the Adirondack Park’s southern border, the day before a State of the State speech in which Gov. Andrew Cuomo once again proclaimed that New York has “too many local governments,” voters rejected the merger of two tiny school districts 10 miles apart.

On Jan. 7, voters in the Northville Central School District struck down a proposed merger with the Mayfield Central School District. By a ratio of more than 2-1 (the vote count was 670-309), Northville residents said they didn’t want a consolidated school district with Mayfield, even though it would have resulted in more state aid and programs. Voters in Mayfield approved the merger 386-273, but without Northville’s approval, the merger proposal is dead, at least for now.

Some Northville residents said they didn’t want their taxes to go up by about 10 percent, which a study of the merger idea said would happen once the two districts merged. We wonder if those same voters are prepared for the level of tax increases that likely will be necessary to maintain the district’s programs going forward.

Much of the rhetoric surrounding the merger vote asserted the idea Northville residents should not allow the state to pressure them into merging with another district. This ignores the reality that without state aid, Northville residents – like many towns – could not operate their school districts as they exist now. The costs of school districts’ employee contracts and state-mandated expenses are much too great for local taxpayers to bear without help from the state.

Northville also has an uncommon and problematic teachers union contract that mandates a maximum number of students for classes in every grade level. That gives Northville few options for cutting expenses, which will make it more difficult for the district to stay under the state’s 2 percent property tax cap.

Also, Northville, like most districts, has ever-increasing health insurance costs from plans the district is contractually obligated to provide for its employees and to retirees until they die. Half of the money the district spends on health insurance goes for retirees, many of whom pay either nothing or very little toward their health insurance.

Northville likely will need to exceed the 2 percent tax cap to maintain its operations. It will be interesting to see what happens if voters refuse to approve tax increases after they rejected the merger.

Meanwhile, Gov. Cuomo has proposed a two-year property tax freeze that would only apply, the first year, to local governments that meet the tax cap – yet another blow to Northville. The second year, the freeze would only apply to local governments that have taken steps toward consolidating or sharing services with their neighbors – definitely not Northville.

Many Northville residents didn’t want to accept the simple truth that their school district is quickly becoming more expensive than they can afford without additional state aid. People in other small upstate school districts should be wary about following their example.