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Plum School Board still divided on tax increase

| Wednesday, June 18, 2014, 10:54 a.m.

Joe Tommarello doesn't agree with the tax increase proposed in the 2014-15 preliminary budget by four fellow Republican Plum School Board members.

Tommarello also isn't happy with the four Democrats' proposal to use money from a fund for capital improvements such as buildings and other projects to balance the $58.1 million spending plan.

After a three-hour finance committee meeting on June 17, the board remained at a stalemate as board members prepare to vote on a final budget on June 30 — the last day to approve a balanced spending plan to submit to the state.

Without a balanced budget, employees would not receive paychecks and tax bills cannot be sent out, board President Sal Colella said.

Four Republicans advocated a .54-mill tax increase to move the $58.1 million spending plan for a vote at the June 30 meeting. The increase would generate about $790,000 for the district, officials have said.

The preliminary budget sets the tax rate at 19.3 mills. That reflects a 0.54-mill increase — the most that the state allows 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 member Kevin Dowdell said a tax increase is necessary this year to cut down on deficits in future budgets and preserve money in the district's reserve fund.

Dowdell doesn't support taking money from the capital fund, a plan supported by the four Democrats on the board.

“I am worried about the future,” he said.

Four Democrats favor board member Tom McGough's plan to use money from the district's capital fund and eliminate the services of Kelly Educational Staffing that finds substitute workers for the district.

McGough said earlier this week that the total in the district's capital fund is $19,385,653, including $2.5 million that was transferred two years ago from the district's fund balance.

“Our final budget alternative stands firm on our commitment to not raise taxes, not cut any programs and would not take any money from our district's fund balance,” McGough said. “We would simply draw back a very small portion of our capital account that has ballooned to well over $19 million.”

McGough said he would look specifically at the portions of the $19 million that are not designated for future building projects and/or money that could be saved with “better stewardship” when the designated building projects are done.

McGough said as an example, the district saved nearly $1 million of the total project cost to build the girls softball field at the high school rather than at Pivik Elementary School.

Tommarello said he supports a smaller tax increase that would garner the district about $350,000 and “cutting expenditures.”

Board member Michelle Stepnick pressed Tommarello to the areas he would cut. Initially, Tommarello said he didn't value one program over another.

“What do you want to cut?” Stepnick continued to ask Tommarello. “If you have another plan, say it out loud.”

Tommarello suggested cutting two librarian positions and two foreign-language positions at Oblock Junior High School and using a portion of the money from the capital fund to balance the budget.

Karen Zapf is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-871-2367 or kzapf@tribweb.com.

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