Trustee Criticizes Budget Process

COMMACK, New York, April 9

BY: Andrew Wroblewski

Despite support being shown for Commack’s proposed 2015-2016, $185,123,747 school budget, Trustee James Tampellini criticized the district’s budgeting practices during an April 1 informal budget presentation.

Commack Trustee James Tampellini listens during an April 1 budget meeting.
Commack Trustee James Tampellini listens during an April 1 budget meeting.

Tampellini, who has been a vocal critic of the district’s budgeting practices since being elected in 2013, is accusing the district of deliberately over budgeting in order to keep tax increases low for the following year.

The district expects to finish the 2014-2015 school year with $6 million in under-spent funds. That money, Assistant Superintendent for Business Laura Newman said, is being used to help Commack achieve a .95-percent tax levy increase in the ’15-’16 budget.

“You don’t need that much of a cushion in your budget. I think that your budgets are a little padded,” Tampellini said to Newman during the April 1 meeting. “I understand you’re allowed to under spend the budget, but you’re allowed to do it when it’s not intentional. When you’re doing it every year to the tune of millions of dollars, I think it becomes a pattern.”

Newman responded by saying that the district does not budget for a “cushion,” and several board members agreed.

“We build what we believe is a reasonable, maximum spending amount based on a host of things,” Newman said.

Once a budget is set and the district begins to accrue money for it, she said, officials try to find savings. For example, she said, if a piece of equipment typically costs $2,000, but unpredictably goes on sale for $800, then it will be purchased for the lower price.

“We plan to budget based on what we expect to spend,” Superintendent Donald James added. “There isn’t an expense in [the budget] that might not occur.”

Tampellini disagreed, however.

“At the end of the day there are millions of dollars under-spent every year,” he said. “You’re unnecessarily burdening the taxpayer for money you know you’re not going to spend. All I’m saying is you should be reducing that number to a closer amount.”

James said the district has been working to reduce overestimations as it adapts to a zero-base budgeting process.

“We’ve been peeling back year after year on the amount that we build into our budget because, as we get better and better at the zero-base process, we live with the budget and we live within our budget,” James said. “We can’t overspend the budget because, if we overspend the budget, there’s a penalty.”

The New York State Comptroller’s Office is currently in the process of auditing the Commack School District for the first time since 2010. The “standard audit” is a part of the “standard risk-assessment process,” Brian Butry, a press officer for the comptroller, said. There are a number of factors that go into which districts are chosen for audits, Butry said; in the case of Commack, historical data and the concerns of board members are all considered.

Originally published: Long Islander News: The Record
(Thursday, April 9, 2015;  A6)

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