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HOMER-CENTER: Directors avoid 'worst case,' OK tentative 2 mill tax hike

by on May 16, 2014 10:54 AM

CENTER TOWNSHIP — They delivered on a promise Thursday evening at the monthly meeting of the Homer-Center school board.

A 7 mill real estate tax increase penciled into a draft of the school district budget introduced three months ago — one that directors pledged would never become reality — has vanished.

Instead, the tentative 2014-15 budget approved for public review calls for raising the tax 2 mills, from 125.6 to 127.6 mills. That would mean about $24 more for the average property in the district, well below the $82 hike in the “worst-case scenario” the board talked about in February.

The budget lists $15.7 million in expenses but only $15.1 million in revenue, meaning the district will draw more than $500,000 from the fund balance to make ends meet.

A $295,000 increase in the retirement fund contribution led the growth in expenses for the coming year. But raising the deductible from $250 to $500 for the health insurance in the new teachers’ contract helped to curb expenses, district administrators said.

And the 2 mill tax increase is less than the 3 mills allowed by the economic index set by the state.

“We worked hard on this budget,” board President Vicki Smith said. “We still have time, if we need to make any changes, but we worked diligently on the budget. We represented our students and our taxpayers well, keeping things in line as much as we can.

“There is always a discrepancy we have between some of our neighboring districts and the funds that they get through the state and what we get. We have been talking about that for quite a few years now,” Smith added.

“We are thinking that when the reassessment is complete, that will even things out a little bit. But we are trying to keep the impact on our taxpayers small, but at the same time provide the best education possible for our students.”

“No one truly wishes for a tax increase,” District Superintendent Charles Koren said. “But a reasonable tax increase is acceptable to continue to provide a quality education at Homer-Center.”

The budget calls for neither adding nor dropping any courses, and it provides for replacing all teachers who have retired or resigned.

Finances at Homer-Center have stabilized since 2011, when the board met a major budget deficit by furloughing teachers, cutting programs and raising the tax more than 9 mills, but the district is not yet in a position to restore any of those cuts.

“It’s something we always wish to do, and we have to keep our eyes on that,” Koren said. “All decisions have to be governed by the mission statement and our priority of providing a high-quality education.

“We’re just not yet back to a point where providing additional opportunities for field trips would be reasonable. That entails balancing the scales between what is palatable with our taxpayers and what is reasonable educationally.”

Board Vice President Gerald Bertig said the district has been relying on a lean administrative staff to reduce costs, “and it is challenging to move forward, such as our goal to develop a foundation here and maybe look into tax abatement programs. That’s all research-driven and time-consuming, and it’s difficult with a small staff.”

The budget also maintains a wage tax of 0.9 percent, real estate transfer tax of 0.5 percent, and local services tax of $5.

The spending plan was approved on a vote of 7-0. Board members Smith, Gerald Bertig, Michael Bertig, Dan Fabin, Fred Hayes, James McLoughlin and Julie Rado were in favor. Sherri Williams and Joy Sasala were absent.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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