Nanuet Schools' McNeill Answers Budget Questions at Civic Association Meeting

Nanuet Civic Association met at 7-9 p.m. on April 7 at the Nanuet Public Library. Superintendent of Nanuet Mark McNeill was the key speaker.

Everywhere you look it seems everyone is discussing school budgets and taxes. Money is tight and everyone is feeling it. Things only get more frustrating when people are not explained the reasons behind rises in taxes or budget cuts.

Although the community has shown up for school board meetings and asked questions during open forum, the Nanuet Schools Superintendent Mark McNeill made sure to reach all district residents by attending the April 8 Nanuet Civic Association meeting to answer questions and explain the situation with the Nanuet School District.

Pfizer, a global pharmaceutical company with a research facility in the Nanuet School District, was a huge taxpayer for the Nanuet School District and covered a great portion of the yearly expenses. On the day of the Nanuet School District budget vote, Pfizer announced that they were downsizing their operations, explained McNeill.

Pfizer also challenged its property taxes for school semesters 2006-07 through 2010-11 in court.

The Nanuet School Board, Town of Orangetown, and Pfizer met Jan. 24, 28, and Feb. 14 to discuss and negotiate.

The was:

  • Pfizer agrees to withdraw its petitions for tax certiorari on property taxes for each of the past five years

  • At the end of the five years, the agreement will eliminate the district’s exposure to liability of $50 - 70 million and the Town of Orangetown’s liability for $20-25 million in court-ordered refunds.

  • Pfizer agrees to limit development of 200+ acres of undeveloped land to either commercial or over-55 adult housing, both of which will have minimal impact on future school district budgets and tax levies. The land in question includes Pfizer’s property bordering Convent road in the Town of Clarkstown.

  • The Nanuet School District agrees that Pfizer’s property taxes for each of the next five years will be $10,450,000, which represents a 45 percent reduction from $19,000,000.

    • Using the 2010-11 figures, Pfizer’s contribution to the District’s Tax Levy changes from about 38 percent to 19 percent.

    • Also, the Town of Orangetown agrees that Pfizer’sproperty taxes for each of the next five years will be $3,960,000, which represents a 45 percent reduction from $7,200,000

For the school semesters of 2011-12, Pfizer will pay $10.45 million in taxes each year for five years, 45 percent less than in previous years. Superintendent McNeill stressed that if brought to court, Nanuet School District would have had to issue bonds for $50 million to $70 million to pay back Pfizer.

Unfortunately, New York school taxes are covered by property taxes, which leaves the homeowners and businesses of Nanuet to pick up the slack and cover the $8.55 gap left by Pfizer, said McNeill

Pfizer owns 200+ acres of land. As part of the contract, Pfizer agreed to limit the development of their land to either commercial or over 55+ senior housing, which will have a minimal impact on future school budgets.

With less taxes, Pfizer should be able to rent out the state of the art facilities they are not currently using  due to their downsizing so that, when the contract is reassessed in five years, Nanuet will get even more taxes from the property. Also, reducing the taxes means that utilizing the facilities will be more economically viable and potentially sustain tax revenue generated from the site’s existing structures.

To ease the burden on taxpayers, Nanuet School District pledged to maintain a 0% tax levy increase in 2011-12. Furthermore, McNeill stated that the Nanuet Mall might start to bring in more property taxes in the years to come, easing the burden on taxpayers even more.

Nanuet currently receives less state aid than other most other districts in the county.  This is because state aid is determined by property tax and income tax.

Although most families in Nanuet are dual-income families, according to property taxes, Nanuet is wealthy. This unbalances the equation and doesn't show a true picture of the state of Nanuet.

State aid may increase because of the decreased amount of taxes Pfizer pays, said McNeill.

School semesters 2011-12 is the fourth year Nanuet School District had to cut teacher positions due to budget issues.

“Enrollment is the same but we are less 18 teachers,” explained Superintendent McNeill. “We're trying to just hold on and hold this levy way down. We're holding expenditures down. We don't want to give people the wrong impression. Tax rates are going up but there's nothing there that's due to extra spending.”

Q&A between Superintendent McNeill and Public

Q: Concerning the space that they vacated. If they want to have commercial brokers rent it out, is it realistic to expect other drug companies to use the same facilities given the corporate tax rate that the United States has and the cheap labor that's overseas? I'm less than confident in their ability to rent out that space over the next five years to anybody.

A: This is what I know. The team representing Nanuet School District that took part in negotiations, what we heard is that the agreement—now I'm not an expert, I have no background in negotiations in large companies—but the agreement is such that if we were to go to court there would be greater exposure. In North Rockland, they have to pay back bonds in past years, let alone future reduction assessments.

What Pfizer was saying in their rationalizing of their demands is, right now, it's a little under $10 a square foot—the taxes divided by the square footage. It would be laid on any company who came in and wanted to rent out a building. They compared the square footage to Cambridge, Mass and Manhattan, which was about $7. Now it's about $5. They're basically saying with this agreement that Pfizer is in the ballpark for being able to attract companies.

Q: Is there a difference between the residential and the business rate?

A: The Board of Education passes a law called the homestead / non-homestead law. I believe that first came into affect in the 80's, maybe the early 80's. By passing the law, what it means is that when the calculations of tax rates are done, there is a bigger burden on the commercial than homeowner. It's not 50/50. (An audience member called out: "It's 63 percent / 37 percent. 320 million is residential and the non homestead is 193 million. So they make up 37 percent of the evaluation and they pay basically 67 percent premium to the residential.) I don't have the numbers, but there is that difference.

Q: I know you're prohibited from speaking about contract negotiations but personally the negotiations of contracts of teachers in this district is of importance to me. I am a New Jersey teacher and everyone knows that the contracts of teachers in Jersey are under attack, but I also feel like that the teachers throughout Nanuet have been very generously bestowed upon with benefits of all kinds, whether dental, health benefits. They have a very generous package.

I feel very strongly that if I'm biting the bullet in New Jersey and still have to pay taxes in Nanuet that the teachers in Nanuet should contribute more to benefits, to contribute more to reduce the burden. The salary cannot keep going up, up, up at high percentages. I'm asking you to hold the teacher's union in Nanuet accountable. I'd like to see you make other changes. I know you have special education teachers' aid mandated by the state, but where I work, we don't have teachers' aid and I feel like that's another area that there can be cuts. I know you have a tremendous amount of aid in Nanuet. Teachers can and will be held more responsible for what goes on in the classroom. I'm responsible for all the kids in my class and I have no aid. I don't want to see anyone lose their job but when my taxes are going up and we're in a critical situation.

We need to make serious cuts. It's not your fault but you're asking us to dig deeper in our pockets and there aren't enough cuts being made. You're trying to do it in the least painful way to the teachers at Nanuet, but unfortunately, they've got to bite the bullet. I feel very strongly that I'm getting reduced in my salary but you're telling me I have to pay more in my taxes. Something has to give.

A: I cannot comment on negotiations because we're at an impasse. Next year, I will remind the Civic Association to please come to the budget workshops, line by line, reads by reads. We have gotten rid of printers. We use copiers where everyone sends what they need to a copier. We don't send anything out copy-wise, but we've looked at toner. We're always looking for places to save. I invite people to come to the budget workshop and listen to the conversation, hear what the line is and what it was for the last four years. Figure out if there's another place we can save. We're in sync.

But, other than teachers, over the past four years, we have. We have cut custodial, we've cut teacher's assistants. There's 2 ½ teacher assistant positions being eliminated in this year's budget. Three years ago there were four or five assistants eliminated. We've eliminated clerical. We have. We decided to go the perimeter of the core instructional program but now we're inside the core instructional program. That's what so frustrating. We have this property wealth, we're looked at as wealthy, but it's getting very serious. We're doing everything we can, but again, come to the budget workshops and let us hear any suggestions you might have.

Public Response: I'm a teacher at Nanuet and I'm telling you, there's not a lot of fluff. We have one person who does all the copying for all the teachers. Maureen Rocco, her husband just got laid off. I pay 20 percent of my health benefits. I can assure you, there isn't anything extra.

Q: New Jersey (teachers) pays 100 percent of their health benefits. I'm a property owner and business owner. You're killing the golden goose. If you walk down Nanuet, a lot of people are hurting. Commercial property pays half the school bill. Look around, you see a lot of For Rent signs. Nanuet business and Commercial property pays 30 percent more than Clarkstown. I'm already paying $80 per $1000, I'd like to know what has the superintendent and the teachers have done to help the sacrifice.

A: There are a lot of variables in the formula, which complicates things. The Board of Education resolution—they do it every year—the idea that's presented with the passing of that is that, it's purposely to shift a bigger burden. What I'm hearing is that you're saying it's a 30 percent bigger burden in a commercial owner in Nanuet than it is in the Clarkstown School District. I never knew that. I'll look into that.

Towards the end of the meeting, one of the attendees finished with this thought:

“With the increase over the next five years, we will be picking up a disproportional share because Pfizer won't be sharing in the increases. By the time we get out in 5 years, we're going to be 50 percent more than Clarkstown. Now, I love Nanuet. I got two kids in the school. I love the school, I love the teachers, but I have a hard time at the end of the day justifying paying 50 percent more to send my kid to Nanuet than to change the sign over the door to Clarkstown. And if we don't look at what's going on, our teachers are going to face great disruption when another school comes to take it over. I don't think they have a real grasp at the true financial situation at any level of the union and realize that there's a good chance in the next few years that we're going to have a consolidation between the schools because we're not paying 50 percent more to go to a school.”

Revisit other Patch articles about Pfizer and their settlement:

Pfizer: What's Closing and When

Orangetown Still Looking Over Settlement with Pfizer

By the Numbers: Inside Look at Pfizer’s Stats & History

Tax Settlement with Pfizer, Nanuet Schools, Town of Orangetown within Reach

Scott Walters April 08, 2011 at 02:56 PM
This will be in several parts and is taken from my community view in the daily newspaper serving Rockland: So Nanuet and Pfizer have made nice for the next five years. The "kick the can" approach will be palatable to some, but not for many. It is quite apparent that the people who will be receiving the "blunt force trauma" of this agreement are the taxpayers and students of the Nanuet school district. The more than $8 million per year for the next five years that Pfizer will not be paying will mean that the tax burden will increase minimally by 12 percent for everyone else in the first year of this agreement. This is to merely stay even, without any increases in costs. If Albany's "property tax cap" proposal to limit property tax increases to 2 percent is enacted, there will be a very large hole to fill. This doesn't even take into consideration that this amount will be paid by taxpayers for the final four years of this contracted agreement, and, of course, if Pfizer's assessment goes up over time, there is no opportunity to recoup that money. We must have other avenues available and utilized to bring money and materials into the Nanuet school district. MORE MORE
Scott Walters April 08, 2011 at 02:57 PM
PART 2... Without flexibility, the burden on taxpayers will go beyond the breaking point. Public colleges and universities, as well as private schools from elementary through post-graduate, already have the model in place. They are way in front of what Nanuet has done and we need to play catch-up now. We must have private-sector funds come into the school district on a much broader scale to help alleviate the ever-increasing tax burden. Allow for private-sector donations to be made to the Nanuet school district in exchange for naming rights to facilities within the school district. Hire a director of development to write grants, pursue private-sector interests with opportunities for quid pro quo naming-rights opportunities and to become the alumni liaison to contact alumni who may be a position to assist in these areas as well. MORE MORE
Scott Walters April 08, 2011 at 02:58 PM
PART 3... These cooperative ventures would of course be handled with care so as to not cause controversy, which seems to be the sole concern of the current school board, which I am sure would be happy to take anyone's money with no strings attached. One could rename a computer lab the "Apple Orchard" but certainly not the "Pokerstars.net Casino and Computer Center." The gym could be renamed the "Gatorade Athletic Center" but not the "Mountain Dew Arena." You get the point. Private money and materials need to be a fabric of the revenue stream. It is an acceptable and legal means of helping our schools in this time of severe need and economic uncertainty. Unfortunately, the Nanuet Schools Education Foundation, the clearinghouse for such donations, has been less than optimal. For the organization to hope to obtain merely $100,000 in funds in one year is not something to be bragging about when the State University of New York system, private schools and colleges in the area are obtaining those kinds of funds without much difficulty over the course of months and not years. A look at their website (www.nsef.org) shows they haven't even botthered to put in an update in over 3 years! MORE MORE
Scott Walters April 08, 2011 at 02:59 PM
PART 4... If you didn't think it mattered before that the Nanuet school district needs a director of development and a stronger alliance with the private sector, it matters now, more than ever before. The chickens have come home to roost, and they are looking to be fed. Join me in my fight to take back the Nnauet schools for the students, taxpayers and citizens. Vote for Scott Walters on May 17. The status quo will not work anymore!
Arthur Winoker April 09, 2011 at 12:19 PM
While your intentions are good, I doubt if any significant funds could be raised by a director of development (or anyone else) for naming rights to any of the facilites within the district. Let's get real -what commercial value is to be gained by some corporate sponsor that names a lab, athletic or other facility in the district? This is not Citifield or some university that we are talking about but smallest school district in the county and the advertising rights to its facilities would have minimal, if any value. A larger question arises if Pfizer is unable to rent and/or sell the major portion of their buildings over the next five years. I have not heard of any plan B to address this contingency nor do I beleive that consolidation with a neighboring school district will take place given the tax burdens that such distirct would inherit from the Nanuet School District.
Martin Deane April 09, 2011 at 12:20 PM
The minimal increase is not 12% it will be 25% as Pfizer will pay no increase.
Scott Walters April 11, 2011 at 02:47 PM
I am crunching numbers...with $8,000,000 to make up on $61,000,000, the increase is 13% this year. ($8/61). We will be saddled with such an increase built in for the next four years, not to mention the fact that Pfizer gets off with no additional increase to their payment. The spin from administration and the Board of Ed is that, "...now there is some certainty in our tax base..." (from a direct conversation between myself and the superintendent last week). However, this certainty is not really certain as we do not know what future contributions from the already strapped governmental authorities will bring. The biggest question which is still unanswered is: Who recommended the deal with Pfizer and what empirical evidence was used in the recommendation?
Arthur Winoker April 11, 2011 at 05:53 PM
As I have noted before, Pfizer has achieved by this settlement what it might not have won in litigation although that assumes the school district's expert was correct in assessing its litigation results. It is water under the bridge this point assuming Orangetown goes along with settlement. I have recently written Dr. Mc Neill to consider the settlement a Mirant situation (although no court awarding Pfizer relief on its tax protests) and that short term bond financing is the only way to avoid having taxes go through the roof next year and in the following years. Pfizer renting and/or selling the improved portion of its property is just his hope now and may remain that for the foreseeable future. After a successful bond financing (with interest rates continuing to be low), consolidation should be the next order of business to effecutate some economies of scale and eliminate the duplicity of administrative and teacher overhead.
James Flynn April 11, 2011 at 10:31 PM
Scott, Mr Deane is correct, the budget is 61 million but the tax levy is 53 million. Since Pfizer paid 19 million last year ,we (all other tax payers) paid 34 million. Now we are picking up the 8.5 million reduction Pfizer received. 8.5 is 25% of 34 our tax bill must go up the 25% to raise the same 53 million. Pfizer as part of the settlement will not have their taxes increased for the 5 year duration of the agreement. Which means that for every 5% increase to the Tax Levy our tax bills will increase 8% as Pfizer will not have to pay.
Scott Walters April 12, 2011 at 01:37 PM
Where did we lose 8 million additional $$$$$$???? This math confuses and confounds, and I even took calculus III in college.... Last yr Pfizer paid 19 Million...we paid the rest, not 34, but 42 Million (less state and federal aid, of course). So with that in mind, the taxpayers are only making up that $8.5 million, or am I off the reservation on this one?
Arthur Winoker April 12, 2011 at 01:59 PM
Regardless of the math, the Board of Education will have to "think outside of the box" and go for bonding as was done in the Mirant case otherwise we will have financial disaster on our hands going forward. Another alternative would be to sell all or a portion of the 37 acres St. Agatha property if and when the real estate market comes back but bonding is an immediate solution on which you should base your campaign and champion. Good luck and I will vote for you as an independent voice and not a clone of the administration.
Risa Hoag May 17, 2011 at 12:11 PM
Speaking of St. Agatha's... We owned the land which is now the Blue Heron neighborhood. The board sold it for the ridiculous sum of around $100,000 (someone can verify the exact amount) and then years later bought the same amount of property at St. Agatha's for $18,000!? What is wrong with this picture? We need to identify the school districts assets and use them accordingly. Land.. Sell, lease, naming rights?! Naming rights to other school assets!? While some have said that won't bring in a lot of money, it could bring in quite a bit. A big asset is our music program. How can we leverage the talent that exists? Naming rights? Concert naming? it is very much time to think outside the box and some of the people involved with decision making in Nanuet are living in the stone age. And I for one think our teachers need to share the burden as well. We love most of our teachers but we must all deal with the problem. When a business has financial problems everyone has to make sacrifices to keep it viable and plan for the future. You can't keep raising prices to the consumer in a business in a recession and the same is true here. You can't keep raising taxes and just expect us to pay it. The business/school system has to make concessions as well and in a business it can be the employees that have to take a hit, to preserve the whole, in this case it may have to be the teachers to preserve the whole. We all have to pitch in to make it work. And yes think outside the box!
Scott Walters May 17, 2011 at 02:11 PM
Thank you Rita for understanding what my candidacy is all about. Don't forget, a Director of Development/Alumni Affairs person would NOT COST THE TAXPAYERS A DIME since that person would be working on commission.
Risa Hoag May 17, 2011 at 02:42 PM
Hi Scott, I very much agree. The trick is finding someone who will do a good job on a commission basis, however, in this economy it should be easier than it might otherwise be. We have to look at creative opportunities, drawing in the business community, looking at ways to use all assets available. It really is time to take a more creative, outside the box approach. The status quo simply won't work for so many reasons now. But it will be a great challenge to convince those already there that anything else will work. I suppose if you are on the board you might have some power, but I know as a parent in the community coming to a board meeting all you get is blank stares and no answers. I have no idea why this would be the case when the school board is there to help the community/parents, instead Dr. McNeil and the school board have alienated so many parents that many just don't show up anymore, it seems fruitless so why bother? I hear this again and again. Utter frustration to do anything or get any answers. I wish you much success trying to change the 'norm.'
Scott Walters May 17, 2011 at 02:47 PM
I'm going to try. There are plenty of great fundraisers out there who would relish the challenge of being in this position. It would be mostly about crafting a proper compensation package. And, given what was written up in the daily paper on Sunday, we would be ahead of the curve in this area, with the only real competition coming from colleges and private schools.
Risa Hoag May 18, 2011 at 02:31 AM
Status Quo... :/
Scott Walters May 18, 2011 at 02:16 PM
I hear you, Risa.....


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