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Ballot proposals involve new debt limits for small city schools and water projects

Karen DeWitt
New York State Public Radio

Tuesday’s ballot contains two proposals that voters might not know a lot about. One changes the way small city school districts can borrow money; the other allows municipalities to access more funds for sewer lines and other infrastructure.

The first would change the state’s constitution to allow the state’s small city school districts to borrow the same proportion of money for capital projects — like new roofs and technology upgrades — as their rural and suburban school counterparts.

For most of the state’s school districts, the debt limit is 10% of their property tax base. But for the 57 city school districts with populations under 125,000 people, such as those in Ithaca, Troy, Niagara Falls and Batavia, the amount is capped at 5% of the tax base.

The New York State School Boards Association is among those backing the proposal. The group’s Brian Fessler said the debt limits were put in place in the 1950s, before voters had a say on the school budgets in those cities. He said it’s now outdated, and the change would even the playing field for the schools, which often have high rates of economically disadvantaged students.

“So ultimately this ballot question or proposition is about equity. It's a vestige of rules that were in place (in the) last century that no longer apply,” Fessler said. “This is kind of one of the final big steps in order to achieve that equity and balance for thousands of students across the state that are in small city school districts.”

The districts will still be required to get approval from their boards of education and from voters for any debt they want to incur, just like all the other districts in the state.

A similar proposal was put before voters in 2003, but was ultimately rejected.

The second proposal also involves extending the ability to borrow money. This one would amend the state’s constitution to allow municipalities to go above their constitutional debt limits for the next decade when it comes to constructing new sewage facilities, including sewer and water systems and waste treatment plants.

Stephen Acquario with the New York State Association of Counties said voters should approve the measure.

“Drinking water and sewer, these are essential infrastructure components for a society,” Acquario said. “You have to have water and sewer.”

He said an example of a municipality that needed to borrow above their constitutional limit is the village of Hoosick Falls in eastern New York. They discovered in 2016 that their drinking water supply was contaminated with toxic PFOA chemicals from a nearby plant.

“Hoosick Falls, who had a massive contamination of PFOA and PFOS in their system, there's no way that that small town could have funded a $25 million water line 20 miles or 10 miles, let alone two miles,” Acquario said. “So in cases of emergency funding, that's what we're talking about here.”

The municipalities still need to seek the state comptroller's approval before they can borrow the money.

The amendment has come before voters every 10 years since 1963. Acquario said in the future, perhaps the amendment allowing the additional debt should be made permanent.

Both proposals are on the back of the ballot — so voters need to remember to turn the ballot over.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.