Taxes going up in Upper St. Clair, Peters
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Emotions ran high Monday night as the Upper St. Clair school board struggled through three split votes and more than an hour of discussion before voting to raise property tax by 1.618 mills -- the largest increase in recent years.
In neighboring Peters, school board members also voted Monday to increase taxes by 3.79 mills as part of a $50.9 million spending plan.
Calling the decision to vote for the $61.8 million final budget with a 25.718 total millage rate for the 2012-13 school year "exceedingly difficult," Upper St. Clair school directors said they would rather "bite the bullet" with a larger tax increase this year so they could forego one next year.
"People are trusting us to do the right thing," said board member Angela Petersen.
Although a tentative budget passed last month called for a property tax increase of 1.375 mills with a smaller increase of 0.433 mills next year, Ms. Petersen proposed a single increase of 1.618 mills with no increase next year to save taxpayers money.
The 1.618-mill rate was the maximum approved for the district, which sought exceptions from the state Department of Education to raise taxes higher than the inflation-driven cap for expenses related to debt, special education and pension costs.
Not convinced that the district wouldn't hike taxes again next year, board members at first rejected the idea by a 5-4 vote, with members Barbara Bolas, Louis Oliverio, Louis Mafrice, Harry Kunselman and Buffy Hasco dissenting.
Ms. Bolas, however, had a change of heart after superintendent Patrick O'Toole said more programs, jobs and classes might need to be cut next year to address a looming deficit caused mostly by pension obligations and debt from a recent $60 million renovation project for the district's two middle schools.
The measure was approved in a second vote by 5-4, with Mr. Oliverio, Mr. Mafrice, Mr. Kunselman and Ms. Hasco again dissenting and Ms. Bolas, Ms. Petersen, Rebecca Stern, Amy Billerbeck, and Frank Kerber voting in favor.
After the higher tax increase was approved, the final $61.8 million spending plan passed by a 6-3 vote, with Mr. Kunselman, Mr. Mafrice and Mr. Oliverio dissenting.
The budget represents an increase of about $2.4 million over last year, but significant cuts of more than $6.6 million were made by eliminating seven teaching and two support positions and through staff restructuring and salary concessions from the unions representing teachers and bus drivers.
The job reductions saved the district $2 million, while the renegotiated teachers contract netted an estimated $3.7 million.
Retirement and health care expenses rose 9.6 percent this year to $13 million. They are expected to continue rising until the 2015-16 school year in what Ms. Billerbeck called "a train wreck waiting to happen."
The higher tax increase this year would leave the district with a projected surplus of $1.8 million to reserve for those future pension payments, but it likely won't be enough to forestall more tax increases in two years, board members said.
Mr. Kunselman said he favored a plan to continue asking the Education Department for exceptions related to pensions, as a way of "sending a message" to lawmakers in Harrisburg.
"The retirement wasn't something we created," he said.
Resident Jim Welch was the only member of the public to comment on the budget, questioning the legality of raising taxes higher than what was called for in the preliminary budget.
Directors lowered real estate taxes to 18.67 mills in 2002, but have since raised taxes seven times.
The latest increase means the owner of a $183,900 home -- the median home value in Upper St. Clair -- will see an increased tax bill of $298 for a total of $4,730 in annual school taxes.
The board voted unanimously to allow taxpayers to use a three-month installment plan to pay taxes, with a 10 percent penalty for those who miss the Aug. 31, Oct. 31 and Dec. 31 deadlines.
In Peters, board members voted 7-1 for the 3.79-mill increase, bringing the total real estate tax rate to 100.30 mills. Member Sue Smith was absent and member Sandra Gregg dissented.
The board also voted to refinance $22 million in debt, which will generate $1.3 million this year.
Along with other funds set aside for the ongoing pension increases, the board hopes this year will be the last tax increase for a while, member William Merrell said.
"Unlike other districts, we do not foresee the need to raise taxes in the next eight to 10 years," he said. "We're one of the few districts that has a cushion."
This year's budget represents an increase of about 2.9 percent over last year, with a handful of teaching and other positions cut.
As with Upper St. Clair, Peters established fees for student activities last year.
This year's tax increase will cost the owner of a $350,000 home -- the average price of a new home in Peters -- an additional $150 annually, for a total tax bill of about $4,012.
First Published June 28, 2012 5:25 am