Return of the Penn Hills tax hike?

Return of the Penn Hills tax hike?

Last week’s presentation of the 2020-21 preliminary budget for the Penn Hills School District is not likely to extend any new year’s cheer for taxpayers.  The current property tax millage of 28.66 mills could increase.  It might outstrip the Act 1 index (3.6 percent) if the state grants exceptions for pensions and special education expenses. 

Last June we wrote a Policy Brief that detailed the district’s financial recovery plan, proposed property tax increase and employee furloughs for the 2019-20 budget.  At the 11th hour the district was awarded $3.3 million from the state (the line item in the district’s final budget is labeled “School Improvement Grants”) and the tax increase was put off for what officials said at the time would be a year. Since 2013-14 property taxes have increased in five out of six budgets, with three of those greater than the index.  But it’s hard to envision a scenario where a district constructs new buildings and taxes don’t go up to pay for them unless the district finds significant savings elsewhere.

Though the district’s recovery officer stated in comments that the $3.3 million was a “gift” there was not much appreciation in his words imploring “the state to step up”.  In the preliminary budget state sources account for $30.7 million (34 percent) of the district’s revenues. That’s a greater share than other districts receive. 

One has to wonder what becomes of the $3.3 million allocation next year—does it get “re-gifted”?  Go back to the education budget? Does it go to another school district in financial recovery?  If so, that’s probably little comfort to taxpayers in other districts around the county and the state that are likely to see their millage rates go up in 2020-21 as well and those districts are not in financial recovery. 

A real present to taxpayers in the district would be for the officer, the board and the administration to work over the next several months to bring down the expenditure amount from the $92.5 million so that the need for a tax increase could be eliminated.  Or perhaps skip seeking the exceptions and put the tax increase in front of voters for an up or down vote.  The results of that vote would speak volumes about where the district is headed.