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Plum School Board members still at odds over proposed tax increase

| Wednesday, June 4, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

The Plum School District preliminary budget contains a property tax increase. But the school board's work on the $58.1 million spending plan is not complete.

“We will be having a lot of discussion on this preliminary budget,” Plum School Board vice President Joe Tommarello said. “I keep going back and forth on the tax (increase) issue. I think a lot can change before the end of June.”

Nearly 24 hours after voting down two proposals to balance the 2014-15 preliminary budget, the Plum School Board got enough votes May 28 to pass a budget that includes a 2.8-percent tax increase.

The vote was 4-2 to pass a tax increase that is estimated to generate nearly $800,000 for the district.

Board President Sal Colella and members Kevin Dowdell, John St. Leger and Richard Zucco voted yes, and Michelle Stepnick and Loretta White voted no. Board members Michele Gallagher, Tom McGough and Joe Tommarello did not attend the meeting that was recessed from May 27.

The preliminary budget sets the tax rate at 19.3 mills. That reflects a 0.54-mill increase — the most that the state allowed the school district to increase taxes by without first getting voters' approval. The so-called Act 1 tax index is tied to an inflation-based formula.

The proposed increase means a taxpayer who owns a home that has the district's median assessed value, $110,000, would pay an additional $59 a year in property taxes next school year.

Board members previously voted down a proposal to use about $746,000 from the district's reserve fund to balance the preliminary spending plan.

“I see the potential next year for a huge deficit,” St. Leger said. “I don't want to cut any more programs.”

St. Leger said that the district needed to increase property taxes to the Act 1 index “to get our financial house in order.”

“This will ease the burden two, three and four years (from now).”

White doesn't support a tax increase. “It's hard to sell senior citizens (on a tax increase) when you build two new schools,” White said, referring to the new Pivik Elementary, and the Holiday Park building under construction.

Tommarello said he doesn't support a tax increase to the Act 1 index. He said he would support a compromise that includes a partial tax increase; eliminating Kelly Educational Staffing, which finds substitute workers including teachers, and cutting expenditures.

“I would only consider raising taxes partially if we cut expenditures as well,” Tommarello said.

Gallagher said she continues to support the plan to use the reserve fund money to balance the budget.

“My position has not changed,” Gallagher said. “I support Tom McGough's preliminary budget (with the use of reserve fund money) with no tax increase and no program cuts.”

McGough, who also is finance committee chairman, could not be reached for comment.

The board was expected to discuss the budget following committee meetings on June 3. A finance committee meeting is scheduled for June 17, following the policy committee meeting. Board members are expected to vote on the final budget during the 7 p.m. meeting on June 30 at the high school.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8753, or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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