School costs prime driver of property taxes

When I ran for the Milford School Board last year, I was committed to making sure we could reign in increases to our school budgets and the ever-increasing property tax burden. Since then, I’ve been laser-focused on those issues which force any increase in our property taxes.

The local school tax and state education tax together currently represents 73 percent of our property tax bill. While our property tax continues rising each year, most might be interested to learn that state and federal legislation is by far the biggest driver of these increases. Our legislators, those who represent us in Concord, have seen fit to reduce or eliminate their share of our education cost year after year. This leaves basically no room for any school board to effectively counter the rise in our school budgets. Instead, our only option is to cut our budget, sometimes by eliminating essential services.

What are the issues that have caused our property taxes to increase?

1. Public employee pension funding: By simply not funding the state’s share of the Employee Pension Fund (30 percent > 0 percent), this alone has increased Milford’s school budget by $875,000 annually, as reported by our state tepresentative, Joelle Martin, at our Nov. 20 meeting. In fact, these reductions also affect the town side of our taxes (the remaining 25 percent of our tax bill) as well, considering they also have employees covered under this state pension plan.

2. Education adequacy: In 2011, the Legislature chose to redefine the education adequacy calculation without any supporting research whatsoever. Currently, the state funds $3,636 for grades 1-12 and $1,800 for kindergarten. This leaves our residents to fund the balance of the current cost of more than $14,500 per student each year. This change immediately reduced the state’s share of school budgets from $921 million to about $776 million in 2011. In Milford, this change raised our default budget more than $1 million in a single year! And these high increases have continued since then.

3. School building aid: In 2009, due to the Great Recession, the state chose to freeze all school building and repair funds for four years. Since then, the economy has rebounded quite a bit, unfortunately every time it comes back up for a vote, this date keeps being extended. In February of this year, that moratorium was again extended until 2022 – that’s 13 years. The state previously funded between 30 and 60 percent of all repairs and new construction for public schools. Now this is zero. These decisions by the legislature, resulting in an enormous lack of funding, have not only forced an increase in our property taxes to pay for major repairs (like the collapse of a section of the high school’s roof under the weight of snow a couple of years ago), but have also left our district with a total of $18 million in unfunded repairs. It is reasonable to argue that maintaining our educational facilities should also fall under education adequacy funding since it’s virtually impossible to educate our students adequately if rooms or whole buildings become unsafe to use.

Bottom Line

The New Hampshire Legislature’s actions have resulted in the greatest increases in spending for our district and resulted in the largest increases to our default budgets. Default budgets represent ongoing expenses along with what the school district must cover under contracts and by state and federal mandates. Therefore, state legislation represents the cause of the vast majority of increases in our local property taxes.

This shift of obligation in the funding of our schools from the state to the local taxpayer is called “downshifting,” and it must be stopped to protect the educational future of the 95 percent of Milford students that currently attend our public schools as well as protecting 100 percent of New Hampshire property taxpayers. Consider this: If we continue to cut our budgets and the ratings of our school district is adversely affected, it will then affect local property values and start chipping away at resident’s largest investments – their homes. And property taxes will still continue to rise out of control.

The School Board is now in the process of deliberating over the details of the 2018/2019 proposed school budget. As we get closer to the Deliberative Session (Feb. 8) and voting day (March 13), I encourage all Milford residents to attend our meetings to learn as much about the issues as possible in order to make an informed decision on voting day.