Wilkinsburg schools tax amnesty OK'd

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During a financially turbulent year in which the district took out a $3 million loan to cover general operating costs and was placed on the state's financial watch list, the Wilkinsburg school board approved a tax amnesty program in the hopes of chipping away at $16 million the district is owed in unpaid real estate taxes.

The program, approved Tuesday night, will waive penalties and interest on delinquent property taxes, an amount the district's business manager, Philip Martell, said is cumulatively about $4 million.

Fifty percent of outstanding attorney fees associated with collecting the taxes will also be waived. To qualify for the program, all delinquent taxes must be paid between Wednesday and June 30.

"You only have a short window," Mr. Martell said, referring to those who are earnest in their desire to pay their taxes.

Mr. Martell said approximately 20 percent of Wilkinsburg residents are behind on their real estate taxes, a proportion he said is extraordinarily high. "You're lucky if half of [the delinquent taxes are] collectable in an area that is seeing socioeconomic times like Wilkinsburg."

He said the next phase of delinquent tax recovery will involve cracking down on landlords of Section 8 housing.

Mr. Martell took over as business manager in February during discussions that divided the school board about whether the district should take out a $3 million loan. Acting superintendent Archie Perrin said at the time that the loan would not address the district's long-term solvency.

The board approved the loan as well as a five-year contract with Mr. Martell worth $500,000.

Mr. Martell said the district's financial woes range from tax collection problems to charter school tuition payments, which he called an "unfunded mandate."

The number of students enrolled in charter schools rose from 306 in the 2011-12 school year to 342 this school year, resulting in a $630,000 increase in charter school tuition payments, according to district solicitor Matthew Hoffman.

But amnesty programs are not a common way out of financial calamity, according to Jay Himes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

"They're probably bleeding in terms of their budget, like most school districts are," Mr. Himes said. "Foremost in their minds probably is how to get a revenue increase and how to do it immediately."

Unless there is a renaissance in Wilkinsburg, it is likely the perils of financial distress will continue to plague the district, Mr. Himes said.

"I think you're going to see extreme measures to avoid further financial catastrophe in some of these financially distressed districts," he said. "There is just no easy way out of this."

education - neigh_east

Alex Zimmerman: azimmerman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.


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