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Sunday, June 04, 2006
Posted 1:25 PM by

Will Pa. lawmakers revisit property tax reform soon?

Council Rock school directors - who operate one of the richest districts in the state - decried the last attempt at reform Thursday, saying it unfairly limited their spending, even as they passed a $153 property tax increase.

Twenty school districts have come out against the property tax reform bill Gov. Ed Rendell wanted but the state House tabled before recessing three weeks ago.When Pennsylvania lawmakers return to Harrisburg tomorrow after a historic primary ousted at least 17 incumbents - including the top two Senators - the state budget will probably dominate their time before the summer recess.

But beneath it on the legislators' to-do list will be the business they left behind three weeks ago - statewide property tax reform.

On May 2, a proposal supported by Gov. Ed Rendell passed the Senate, 40-9. But the House tabled a vote on House Bill 39 a day later, saying the measure did not do enough to give property owners a break. By Rendell's own estimate, it would have saved the average homeowner $200, but increased taxes by a lot more than that on working renters.

Opponents of the measure are already calling for that bill to be killed for varying reasons. Some want a new bill written that eliminates school property taxes entirely as a source of revenue for the state's 501 districts.

The Council Rock School Board isn't one of those. Instead, it became the 20th district to adopt a resolution against H.B. 39 last week because the measure would limit school spending to the rate of taxpayers' wage increases, unless the district obtained voter approval to spend more in a referendum.

Council Rock joined 20 other districts to stand against the idea of letting voters have a direct say over property tax hikes last week, even as school directors raised property taxes again.On Thursday, Board members said they are against such a proposed referendum because it "improperly [makes] scapegoats of public school districts for funding issues that have been caused mainly by factors outside of their control."

The state used to pay half of the district's costs, but now only covers 17 percent, the directors said. Statewide, the Commonwealth's contribution to schools is about 36 percent, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported in January.

Council Rock, the district I graduated from in 1985, is located in Newtown, Bucks County and is one of the most affluent school systems in the state. Its lucrative teachers contract is often cited by unions in other districts during contract negotiations.

Yet, citing higher salary and benefit costs, as well as rising energy prices, which left a $5 million hole in next year's $178.5 million budget, Council Rock school directors voted unanimously Thursday to raise property taxes by about $153 or 3.5 percent for the average homeowner in the district - to about $4,447 a year.

Superintendent Mark Klein said the tax hike would still be below the threshold by which the district would be required to have a public referendum if H.B. 39 became a law.

The nearby Bristol Township School District, which is far-less-affluent, became the first district in the state to put such a referendum to voters in the May 16 primary. It was overwhelmingly rejected.

But in the long run, the vote didn't matter. The referendum only covered a small portion - $48 for the average homeowner - of that district's proposed tax increase - $200 - and Bristol's school board was able to find enough money to offset the ballot question's lost revenue.

Despite $550,000 in lower than expected health care costs and a $300,000 "insurance settlement," the average Bristol Township taxpayer will still pay about $152 more next year under the district's proposed budget.

Across the state, Pittsburgh-based Stop Taxing Our Properties (STOP) is saying enough is enough.

Bristol Township school directors became the first in the state to ask voters to approve a small portion of their planned property tax hike. The voters overwhelmingly rejected it and the board made up the money elsewhere.Pennsylvania should eliminate all property taxes by passing a 1 percent increase in the state sales tax and a 1 percent increase in the state income tax, Bob Logue, the group's organizer told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

"What we need now is a large group of angry people who don't just call their legislators once but call them constantly," Logue said, citing the successful popular movement that ousted incumbents last month. "The public has to get angry and involved."


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