ALBANY, N.Y. - Gov. Andrew Cuomo vetoed legislation last week that would have forgiven the Mahopac Central School District for a paperwork oversight years ago that now has the district on the hook for millions of dollars in past and potential state aid.
The district completed several capital projects a little more than eight years ago, but due to the errors of a prior administration, it neglected to submit the final cost reports to the state.
Last summer, led by Sen. Pete Harckham, a bill was passed by the Senate and, later, the Assembly that would have allowed for the submission of this paperwork without incurring any additional hardship on the school district.
The legislature’s bill would have granted formal forgiveness for administrative errors made during the 2011-12 school year.
The projects in question were a bundle of energy performance contracts that were being done in conjunction with Con Edison. Virtually every building was impacted by the project by the time it was finished.
Former district assistant superintendent for business affairs, Harvey Sotland, told Mahopac News earlier this year that at the end of every capital project, school districts in New York must send a final cost report to the state Education Department.
However, the Mahopac administration, at that time led by Superintendent Thomas Manko, neglected to file the paperwork.
“When I came on board in July 2018, I was looking at some reports that the state had posted online on their website and I noticed there was a slew of projects that had no final cost report filed,” Sotland explained. “So, I knew right away if that happened to be the truth, then we were in jeopardy at some point with [the state] catching up with us and us losing aid and having to repay [money] we’d already received. We wanted to be transparent. I reached out to the state and verified they didn’t receive [the reports] and that really set things in motion.”
The state legislation would have allowed the school district to forgo having to repay $3.1 million it has received so far for the projects because of those errors. In addition, the district would still be eligible for $2.7 million of funding promised by the state for the projects.
“I am deeply disappointed that this important legislation, which was passed, has not been approved by the governor,” Harckham said. “By all accounts, when the state changed the application process in 2011 for school districts applying for building aid there was some confusion, and a number of districts submitted applications with errors. This was nearly nine years ago, however. The penalties that are being levied on the school district now are unfairly affecting taxpayers and students who were not even in the district when the mistakes occurred.
“In this case, two wrongs definitely will not make the situation right,” he added.
The monetary penalty is significant enough to force the district to seriously reconsider spending priorities in the upcoming years, and possibly cut staff or programs, Harckham said.
The senator said he would try again in the upcoming 2020 legislative session to rectify the situation.
There were eight bills such as Mahopac’s before the governor; he signed some and vetoed others. In Sullivan County, he approved the Roscoe School District’s request for a reprieve saving it $1.1 million but vetoed Monticello’s request to escape a $1.9 million penalty. In Dutchess County, he signed a bill holding the Spackenkill School District harmless, saving it $5.5 million in penalties.
“I am beyond disappointed with Gov. Cuomo's decision to veto this sorely needed legislation that would have assisted the Mahopac Central School District, and thereby aid our schools, students, and fellow taxpayers." Assemblyman Kevin Byrne said. “The governor’s decision not only neglects the needs of the school district but further disregards the needs of everyday taxpayers who are trying to live, work and stay in their home state of New York. The Mahopac School District acted in good faith by making the error known and by trying to right the mistake of a prior administration. Sadly, it seems they are being punished for it.”
Byrne said he would continue to work with Harckham to advocate for the forgiveness in the upcoming legislative session.
Superintendent Anthony DiCarlo said the district was disappointed with the governor’s actions but will work with local legislators to write a new bill.
“We will work with both Sen. Harckham and Assemblyman Byrne in crafting a new bill in 2020 that will once again pass both houses and hopefully be signed by the governor," he said.