Could PA Approve Charters a Different Way?


In the school district of Sto-Rox in western Allegheny County there is a disagreement between the district and a prospective K-12 brick and mortar charter school that wants to locate in the district’s boundaries.  The school board rejected the charter’s petition, but the charter school appealed to the state’s appeal board.  That’s the status quo under the state’s charter law.

Sto-Rox is fearful of the effects that a charter school could have on its district, and thus has a vested interest in not allowing for competition.  That’s what was made evident when the district first rejected the charter’s application.

So this begs the question: should Pennsylvania devise a different system of approving charter schools?  A recent state report looked at the topic and examined whether an independent board or giving institutions of higher education charter approval powers would be preferable.  To date, 48 school districts have approved 159 charter schools in PA (the Dept of Education authorizes cyber charters).  In nearly all of the 42 states that allow charters the local school district has a role in approval, though it may be shared with the state.  Ultimately the report recommends a pilot program for PA that would involve institutions of higher education on a limited basis.

School Funding Case Appealed


After the Commonwealth Court rejected the arguments made from several plaintiffs over school funding in PA, the case has been appealed to the state’s highest court for a remedy.  The Commonwealth Court’s decision said that the issue is one for the General Assembly to craft, and the state Supreme Court rejected a similar case in the 1990s.

What is interesting is that a Legislative Commission wrapped up nearly a year of hearings on the issue of school funding and is expected to release recommendations in less than three weeks.

So one could surmise that unless the Supreme Court acts with all deliberate speed, it probably won’t render a decision on the case until after the recommendations of the Commission are released.  Would the Court rule on the Commission’s non-binding recommendations?  Or would it circumvent the work of the Commission–and whatever its recommendations are–and craft its own formula and instruct the General Assembly to to follow it?  It is hard to see either of those happening.

Pittsburgh’s Population at Mid-Decade


From the 2010 Census tally of 305,704 to the 2014 Census estimate of 305,412, Pittsburgh’s population change was described today by a researcher as “pretty close to net zero” which is quite different from earlier times.  In fact, just a decade ago, the change in population from the 2000 Census (334,563) to four years after (322,450) was a 3.6% drop, compared to the 0,09% decrease the numbers indicate from 2010 to 2014.

If we look at Pennsylvania’s four cities with a population greater than 100,000 (there were four as of the 2010 Census) we see a western half-eastern half dichotomy at play.  Pittsburgh and Erie lost population from 2010-14 (Erie dropped under 100,000 to 99,452) and Allentown and Philadelphia gained population (0.9% and 2.2%, respectively).

In late March the Census Bureau released county estimates, and that showed Allegheny County as a whole grew 0.61% from 2010-14.  Based on the 2010 Census total for the County (1,223,348) and the 2014 Census estimate (1,231,255) the non-Pittsburgh population increased 0.89% between 2010 and 2014.

Another Delay for “Racino”–Is it the Last?

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The elusive Lawrence County harness racing and casino development has been given an extension of six months to end on November 20th of this year.  There are three existing harness racing tracks with slots gaming in the state (the Meadows in Washington, Mohegan Sun in Wilkes Barre, and Harrah’s in Chester).  There are four existing gaming facilities in the western half of the state including the Meadows (Rivers in Pittsburgh, a stand alone casino; Presque Isle in Erie, a thoroughbred venue; and Lady Luck in Farmington, a resort casino).

A facility in Lawrence County would be the fifth venue in the western half of the state should it come to fruition.  When the ten year anniversary of legalized gaming arrived in July of 2014 the goal of having 14 gaming venues was still short by two, and that is still the case.

Taxes on Hotel Stays Could Be Going Up


On the same week that the City of Philadelphia announced that it would like to extend its hotel tax to people making lodging arrangements through third party electronic apps, the Pennsylvania General Assembly is giving the option to 54 of the state’s 67 counties to boost their local hotel tax from 3 percent to 5 percent.  Both levels are maximums–there is nothing that forces a county to levy the tax at all or, if it does, to set it at the maximum.

The Legislature is saying they are responding to the desires of counties and tourism agencies that have been asking for the increase.  A study on the history of hotel taxes in PA and the use of the tax can be found here.

Since the proposal only extends to certain counties from the third through eighth classes hotel patrons in Allegheny County will still be subject to the 7 percent maximum that is levied under the provisions of the second class county code (this is in addition to the 7 percent sales, use, and hotel occupancy tax levied by the state, which is 6 percent elsewhere, unless you are in Philadelphia).  For a look at how the hotel tax in Allegheny County is divided up, this handy flowchart should help.

School Millage Rates Start Taking Shape

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Whether or not the newest plan for school property tax relief makes it through the other chamber of the General Assembly and what then happens if it makes it to the Governor, the fiscal year for 42 of 43 school districts in Allegheny County (save Pittsburgh) begins July 1st, and tax rates are being decided on presently.  In the two fiscal years since the County’s reassessment (2013-14 and 2014-15, the latter ending next month) 22 of the 41 districts levying a single real estate tax (this excludes Clairton, which taxes land and improvements at separate rates) raised their millage rates.  One district (Baldwin-Whitehall) reduced its millage rate.  The remaining 18 made no change to their millage rate.

For 2015-16, from news accounts it appears that Fox Chapel and Pine-Richland will not change their millages from where they are this year.  Baldwin-Whitehall will reverse course and raise its millage following the reduction, and Brentwood will follow its 2 mill increase in 2014-15 with another hike apparently.

Comparing City Parking Tax Collections


In August of this past year the rates for parking at Pittsburgh Parking Authority garages and lots increased.  There is another rate increase scheduled for August of this year.

So how have parking tax collections for the City (it levies a 37.5% tax rate on all parking transactions in the City, whether at publicly owned or privately owned facilities) compared since the rate hike?  We don’t know for sure whether rates at private garages and lots increased following the rate hike by the Authority, but from August 2014-March 2015 the City collected $29.2 million in parking taxes, or about $3.653 million per month on average.  Compared to the same time frame a year earlier (August 2013 to March 2014) City parking tax collections totaled $28.7 million, or about $3.599 million a month.

The highest month for collections since the rate hike was in the first month the increases took effect when the August 2014 collections were $4.650 million.  Monthly totals fell to $4.064 million in December of 2014 and the most recent month of data available shows $4.460 million for March 2015.

SE PA Borough Enters Distressed Status


Just as Pittsburgh’s Mayor and the City’s police bureau are locked in arbitration hearings and both sides are arguing over contract provisions and, according to the Mayor, over the presence of Act 47 and a recovery plan itself, the Act 47 list of distressed communities has just grown by one this week with the addition of Colwyn Borough in Delaware County.  Along with the larger City of Chester, which has been under Act 47 status since 1995, Colwyn is the third municipality from Delaware County to be in Act 47 (the Borough of Milbourne was in from 1993 to 2014).

Colwyn Borough becomes the first municipality to enter into distress following the changes that became law in November of 2014 under Act 199 with its changes to time limits, tax options, and disincorporation possibilities that the law puts into place.  Based on the testimony included in the Department of Community and Economic Development’s order, the Borough’s financial problems appear to go back two decades so it will be a tall order for the Act 47 coordinators to steer the local government within the new timeline requirements.

If PA Reforms Pensions, How Would it Compare?

piggy bank

This week, some of the details of a proposed pension reform plan were revealed, and the changes would include placing new hires into a defined contribution type plan.  There would also be changes for current workers for benefits that have not yet been attained, which would likely test the contract impairment language of the state Constitution.

As of now, it is quite rare for a state to mandate that all state employees be placed into a defined contribution plan.  That’s the case in Alaska, and Michigan did that for state workers.  There are mandatory hybrid plans (note that a recent proposal for municipal pension plans would have been a cash balance approach, which is a hybrid), optional defined contribution plans, and optional hybrid plans that vary in terms of characteristics and to which type of employees they apply.



How Will Seniority Vote Be Received in Pittsburgh?


Three years ago, in the midst of cutbacks in the Pittsburgh Public School District, there was a bit of a groundswell of support for making furlough decisions on something other than seniority.  Community organizations rallied in favor and the leaders of prominent foundations in the City wrote an opinion piece in support, but the teachers union would not negotiate the issue of seniority.

So now that the House Education Committee has voted for using performance primarily in school furloughs rather than seniority (the second time in the last two years), how will the proposal be treated three years later?  A state law change would likely mandate that school contracts could not include language that utilized seniority as the mechanism to determine who is let go when cuts are made.