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Tax hike in West Jefferson Hills going toward major-project funding

| Tuesday, July 2, 2013, 10:39 a.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
The new West Jefferson Hills School District Superintendent, Michael Panza, was greeted by the Thomas Jefferson High School Jaguar when his hiring was announced in late April. Panza started in the district on July 1.

The first tax increase in the West Jefferson Hills School District in five years could help to fund construction projects, including a planned $73 million high school, district leaders said.

“The tax increase is going to help as we move forward with putting money aside for that,” Superintendent Michael Panza said.

School board members voted 8-0 last week to approve the district's 2013-14 budget of $40.3 million, which is based on a property tax rate of 18.104 mills. Board Vice President Shauna D'Alessandro was absent.

The additional $480,000 collected over the next year from a 0.39-of-a-mill tax increase will be put aside to help finance construction work, Panza said. Leaders continue to review construction needs districtwide.

Board members have yet to approve a master plan for future building needs that was completed earlier this year by district architect Ryan Pierce.

The board in April was given a binder containing plans for long-term maintenance upgrades and ideas for handling enrollment growth, including the building of a new high school.

District officials at the end of May completed the purchase of 151 acres of vacant land on Old Clairton Road adjacent to the district's administration building, according to Allegheny County records.

The $1,075,000 purchase will be paid for through money set aside for capital improvements, officials said.

In the facilities master plan, architects recommended constructing a $73 million high school on the property and demolishing the current Thomas Jefferson High School, using that area for parking and keeping the stadium in its current location.

It likely will be a couple of months before any plans start to take shape for such a project, Panza said.

For a home assessed at $100,000, the tax-rate increase would equal $39 more on the owner's real estate tax bill, director of finance Tracy Harris said.

But with court-ordered countywide reassessments, the tax hike's impact on individual homeowners will vary based on how their properties were reassessed, Harris said.

The district reduced its millage rate for 2013-14 to comply with state anti-windfall restrictions. Cutting the tax rate from 21.08 mills to 17.714 mills ensured the district would collect the same amount of revenue in 2013-14 as last year; then, the district used a state-approved index to raise taxes by 2.2 percent, or 0.39 of a mill, which made the millage 18.104.

West Jefferson Hills still will have the 10th-lowest tax rate of the 42 Allegheny County public school districts, excluding Pittsburgh Public Schools, leaders said.

Assessment appeals haven't been decided on $141 million of the district's total $1.4 billion in property assessments, Harris said. How that will affect the district's budget remains unknown, she said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or shacke@tribweb.com.

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