Saturday, March 5, 2011

Arlington School District Proposes Lowest Tax Levy Increase in Decade — NOT

In the dry, geeky world of tax statistics, it's not often one encounters a humorous misstatement, especially when dealing with the effects of the economic meltdown of 2008.  I say “dealing with” rather than the more optimistic “recovering from” because the budget situation in the Arlington School District, many other school districts, and indeed many local taxing authorities is nothing short of dire.  As I see it, many institutions are not so much being squeezed as they are being partially dismantled.  But that's another story.
Anyway, Arlington School Superintendent Geoffrey Hicks provided some unintentional humor — gallows humor, perhaps — in his 65 page 2011-2012 Budget Draft 2 presentation of February 15, 2011.  In a key foil on page 50 summarizing dozens of pages of detailed budget issues, Hicks presents three main points, the second of which is inadvertently written as
Lowest proposed tax levy in 10 years
Oh, how we wish it were true!  In reality, the proposed tax levy is the highest in 10 years, and almost certainly the highest in the history of the School District, as Hicks undoubtedly knows.  But of course, Hicks didn't mean to write Highest either.  It is clear from context that what he meant to write was
 Lowest proposed tax levy increase in 10 years
Indeed, the corrected statement already appears in a February 22 Poughkeepsie Journal story about Arlington's budget.

Faulty Tax Levy Increase Data

The problem is, even after fixing the typo, this statement is still wrong!  That's because Hicks' statement is based on faulty data about Arlington's tax levy increases.  His data is presented in a chart on page 51, in the form of a graph of Arlington's tax levy increase for each year beginning in 2003.  Most of this data is wrong.  Wrong enough to make Hicks' summary statement wrong.

My analysis of Arlington's tax levy increase history, based on data from Dutchess County's Real Property Tax Service Agency (which maintains the data for preparing property tax bills), looks like this:

The above chart shows that Hicks' proposed tax levy increase of 4.47 percent noticeably exceeds 2007's tax levy increase of 3.98 percent.  One way Hicks can correct his statement is to write

Second lowest proposed tax levy increase in 10 years

This would harmonize well with Hicks' third main point on the same summary foil, “Second lowest spending increase in 10 years”.

Hicks' tax levy data isn't all wrong.  It is actually correct for 2008 and later years.  But for 2003 to 2007, it bears no relation to the historical record.

Kudos to Hicks, despite mistake

Hicks' mistake isn't a really big deal, especially in the context of the total budget proposal.  I'm quite impressed with the breadth and depth of his total presentation, which considers a very wide variety of factors I can't begin to summarize here.  This is already Hicks' second major version of this year's budget proposal.  The first one, presented in January, begins with the following candid foil:

Hard Facts
  • 2011-12 will be the most difficult budget construction cycle in memory.
  • There will be additional staff reductions and budget cuts in Arlington for 2011-12. There is no way to avoid it.
  • There is a potential “perfect storm” of factors that threaten to place extreme stress on the existing system.
  • Starting the process early and being completely transparent are the best means for making critical decisions.
I find Hicks' approach of summarizing the Bad News and his openness about presenting the issues to be an admirable approach, well worth emulating by other districts in this difficult time.


I'm grateful to Arlington School District Assistant Superintendent for Business Robin Zimmerman for confirming the correctness of my 2005-2010 tax levy data, and for many helpful discussions.

Arlington School District Table and Charts Are Available

The format of this blog is not really suitable for presenting the large table and charts of Arlington's tax rate history that I would have liked to show as part of this post.  Interested readers can find this supplementary information in my report Arlington School District Aggregate Property Tax.

1 comment:

  1. Great work, Bill!

    I was honored to study statistics in the past. Until I learned that statistics is nothing, but quite a bit of data manipulation. Deceiving manipulations... That is.

    Interesting twisting of terms and definitions that you exposed. Thank YOU!


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