Penn Hills real estate taxes expected to go up to help balance the district’s 2019-20 budget |
Penn Hills

Penn Hills real estate taxes expected to go up to help balance the district’s 2019-20 budget

Michael DiVittorio

The cash-strapped Penn Hills School District wants to raise property taxes by more than 6 percent as the school district struggles to balance next school year’s budget.

School board members voted 8-0 Monday night to advertise its 2019-20 spending plan and seek exceptions to raise taxes beyond the Act 1 index — a state formula that limits tax hikes. Board Member Cathy Mowery was absent. School Director and former district treasurer Rob Marra participated via phone.

The proposed budget, which will be posted on the district’s website and available for review in the administration office later this week, would raise the millage rate from 28.6646 mills to 30.5818 mills, a 1.9172-mill and 6.69 percent jump.

The proposed new rate would amount to the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 paying about $192 more in taxes next year.

Eileen Navish — the district’s fourth business manger in as many years — said the district will seek exceptions to the state’s tax hike limit due to pension and excessive special education costs.

Charter school costs are expected to rise from $13.9 million this school year to $15.8 million in 2019-20 due to anticipated increases in per student tuition rates.

The Pennsylvania State Employee Retirement System’s employer contribution rates are projected to increase from 33.43 percent to 34.29 percent.

Navish said she is unsure if the district would be granted the exceptions, and the state could set the final millage rate.

“It’s not an automatic thing,” she said.

Navish said there’s not much more the district could cut without impacting educational programs. She highlighted years of administrative and teacher pay freezes, slashing of administrative positions as well as teacher furloughs and cuts to student electives.

“Everyone has done their part by taking on additional work, taking on additional freezes,” she said. “We’re looking to streamline positions, but we are also cautious. We don’t want to upset the current stability. The administration is constantly reviewing non-required programming.”

Penn Hills residents would be among the highest-taxed in Allegheny County if the proposed millage rate is approved.

Revenues and expenses were listed at roughly $89.9 million and $98 million, respectively, which leaves an estimated $8.2 million shortfall.

Projected revenues include $54.6 million from local real estate taxes, $30.8 million from the state and $4.45 million from federal sources.

Projected expenses include $49.6 million for salaries and benefits, $4 million for supplies, $32 million for purchased services, $508,000 for equipment and $11.9 million in debt service payments.

Board President Erin Vecchio, who has vowed not to approve any financial matters until Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. completes his investigation into district finances, voted in favor of the preliminary budget.

Vecchio said she believes the district has the most accurate numbers in several years after seeing Navish’s presentation and speaking with Marra.

Zappala’s office launched its investigation in response to the May 2016 release of an audit by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, which alleged mismanagement of funds, bad decisions and lack of oversight put the district more than $172 million in debt.

The debt is largely due to high school and elementary construction projects. Penn Hills also borrowed $18 million in October 2015 to fund day-to-day operations.

A plan to close the projected shortfall was not outlined in the budget presentation. That will be formed with the assistance of a full-time state recovery officer.

Penn Hills was placed into financial recovery status by the state Department of Education on Jan. 16.

Board members remain optimistic about the district’s future with the state assistance.

“I don’t see the recovery status as a dark cloud,” Denise Graham-Shealey said. “I see it as something positive. I see it as Harrisburg saying, ‘OK. We need to come in and help a little bit more.’ We can’t put it on taxpayers. We can’t continue to do it. It’s OK to get some help.”

The officer’s expected to be appointed and start work in Penn Hills in February.

A special meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 19 to formally adopt the preliminary budget.

The district must adopt a final budget and formally set the millage rate by the end of June.

Michael DiVittorio is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Michael at 412-871-2367, [email protected] or via Twitter @MikeJdiVittorio.