Thursday, June 23, 2011

12.3 percent tax hike

Depending on which version of the "Breaking News" story you read on yesterday, the Albert Gallatin Area School District board either "voted Wednesday to furlough more than 30 employees" (the early afternoon version), or "voted Wednesday to furlough 18 employees" (the late afternoon version).

We will leave it to editor Mark O'Keefe to explain why his publication floated two versions of the story with such a wide variance in the furlough number. Here in the patch, we think it avoids confusion when you get it right the first time, but hey, what do we know?

But both version of the story were in agreement on one big point: The AG school board also voted to impose a 1.368-mill hike in the real estate tax rate. The newspaper promised more details in a story to come Friday.

We hope one of them includes this fact: The AG school board's action will increase school district property taxes by 12.3 percent. This number is easy to calculate: take the 1.368-mill hike and divide it by the current 11.19-mill rate.

Here's how the tax hike really shakes down: Someone who had been paying $500 in school taxes will now pay $561.50. Someoone who had been paying $1,000 will now pay $1,123. Someone paying $2,000 will now pay $2,246.

We seriously doubt that very many property owners in the AG district -- one of the state's poorest -- got a 12.3-percent raise over the past three years, let alone the past year. But this type of tax increase is what happens all too often when school board members have relatives on the payroll.

Both versions of the breaking news story also contained these paragraphs:

According to the district's business manager, Denise Sheetz, the tax increase was needed due to an expected loss of general state funding for the district of $3.6 million.

"The amount cut by the state depletes are current fund balance," Sheetz said. "I am worried that without the increase, we won't be able to make payroll."

Since Ms. Sheetz brings up the subject of payroll, we in the patch also have our fingers crossed that in Friday's follow-up, the Herald-Standard includes some information on what that payroll looks like. If the readers are to be told that AG might miss payroll, shouldn't they also be given some idea of what types of paychecks those like Ms. Sheetz might be forced to do without?

It's all public information, and all the newspaper has to do is ask. But don't look for that to happen anytime soon. It would irritate hundreds of employees and their families, and that could translate into subscription losses.

We don't know what shape Friday's story will take, but we highly doubt that it will look anything like the story that appeared in the Butler Eagle on Wednesday: "SV board member criticizes union -- Wanted teachers to freeze pay."

Here's how it started:

A Seneca Valley School Board member Monday night voiced his displeasure with the decision made by the teachers union not to take a pay freeze to help close the district's large budget deficit.

Eric Gordon, who represents part of Cranberry Township, said he's gotten incredible amounts of feedback from constituents in the board passed the final budget in May.

That feedback, he said, included taxpayers who were upset at a 5.6-percent property tax increase to help close a $10 million shortfall in the district's $94.5 million budget.

Wow. Here we have a school board member in another western Pennsylvania county speaking out against a 5.6-percent tax hike, which is less than half of the 12.3-percent approved by AG. And he thinks the teachers should have helped out by taking a one-year pay freeze.

Across the state, in some public school districts, administrators and teachers have been doing exactly that. In some cases, the pay freeze alone isn't going to be enough to completely solve the budget problem, but it would lessen the size of any tax hike.

We hope tomorrow's newspaper also lists how many school board members have relatives working for the school district. That might go a long way toward explaining the board's willingness to raise taxes 12.3 percent -- and why you're more likely to hit a Marcellus gas well by uprooting a blackberry bush than to hear a AG school board member who sounds like Mr. Gordon.

1 comment:

  1. Again, editing can't be blamed for everything. It's certainly a factor, but frequently the reporters aren't doing their jobs.

    I know for a fact that the tax increase did not happen because of schoolboard members relatives. The board has been told a few years now that taxes needed to be raised because money was tight even before the state budget issues, but they kept voting against it and very nearly voted against it again this time.

    Not sure what their stand on pay freezes was, other than the one some of administration took, but I do know that matters could be helped by teachers retiring. Jobs could be saved if some of the older teachers would retire--and AG even offers an early retirement bonus, I believe--but they will not do it.