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Belle Vernon Area avoids tax increase

| Friday, June 21, 2013, 12:31 a.m.

The Belle Vernon Area School Board passed a “feel-good” budget Thursday tied to a small decrease in property taxes – but one board member fears the good times might not last long.

The board unanimously passed a $34,488,863 general fund budget for 2013-2014. It set real estate tax rates at 76.36 mills for properties in Westmoreland County (Rostraver Township and North Belle Vernon) and 18.25 mills for properties in Fayette County (Belle Vernon, Fayette City and Washington Township).

In order to equalize taxes under state law, millage was lowered for Westmoreland properties. The 2012-13 rate is 77.21 mills.

However, board member Joe Grata warned the board that an approximately $2.5 million increase in spending for teachers and staff could end up causing problems.

According to the 2013-14 budget, total estimated expenditures for instruction, support services and financing totals $34,488,863 – up from $31,963,941 this school year.

Grata told the board it was following “a path we're going to be unable to sustain in the future.”

“It's a feel-good budget, but the red flag is expenditures have been increased 8 percent,” Grata said after the meeting. “It's great there's no tax increase for the second year in a row, but we need to start looking down the road with more prudence.”

Business manager Eileen Navish said reasons for the increase were twofold: a 3 percent increase in health insurance costs and a 4.57 percent increase in retirement contributions, as set by the Public School Employees' Retirement System.

The latter rate is expected to increase even more, Navish said.

Navish noted the work of Superintendent Dr. John Wilkinson in paring down other expenditures as well as savings realized by closing Rostraver Middle School.

When announcing his reconfiguration plan in January, Wilkinson claimed the closure would save nearly $350,000 in maintenance costs alone.

In reducing the 2013-2014 budget, Wilkinson went to department heads and had them account for each line-by-line budget expenditure, cutting where necessary.

There were no changes to any other taxes, including business privilege, mercantile and real estate transfer. The board voted, 7-1, to extend by one year the district's collective bargaining agreement with secretaries.

Grata cast the lone dissenting vote. Board President Dale Patterson and directors Toni-Jo Kunka, Kimberly Ringstad Gray, Ed Naylor, John Nusser, Aaron Bialon and Dan Sepesky supported the action.

“I know I'm going to catch (heck) for this, but we're overly generous,” Grata said when asked why he voted “nay.”

“Our secretaries will be making from $18.35 per hour to $21.83. Plus the secretaries refused to take a wage freeze when we were going through severe financial challenges (in 2011).

“In the meantime, we had three-year wage freeze by custodial, transportation and cafeteria workers. I don't think that's fair.”

In its final action of the night, the board agreed to implement an assessed value Homestead and Farmstead exclusion for each approved property in the district for $165.09.

Grata noted that $943,000 in state gaming money figured into the final numbers, but lamented the board had expected that amount to be much larger.

“At least 10 times that, Joe,” Bialon said.

Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 724-684-2635.