Citizens at Homer City meeting express concerns about taxes, fate of liquor stores
Current hot-button issues in Harrisburg — including a proposal for privatizing liquor sales — surfaced at a town hall meeting Wednesday at Homer City's fire hall.
But several of the 30 some citizens who turned out for the session led by state Rep. Dave Reed were focused on a more familiar concern — rising taxes.
Local economic development efforts were also touched on during the meeting as Reed reviewed Gov. Tom Corbett's $28.5 billion 2013-14 Pennsylvania budget proposal and then fielded questions from the audience.
Bradley Powell, who noted he was idled from a job as a security guard, asked Reed for his thoughts on ways to lower local property taxes.
Powell expressed concern about a potential real estate tax hike of nearly 6 mills that the local Homer-Center School District has included in is preliminary 2013-14 budget.
“People aren't going to be able to afford these taxes,” Powell said. “If we keep doing this, we're going to lose our homes.”
“The taxes are horrible here,” he later added. “Do you think people are going to come to Homer City?”
Among local officials attending the meeting was Vicki Smith, president of the Homer-Center School Board. Smith explained that the district is applying for state approval of an exception that would allow the school board to raise the district real estate tax by as much as 5.8644 mills — an increase that would be about 2.8 mills beyond that normally authorized under Pennsylvania's Act 1.
But Smith said the board's intent is not to use that exception, if possible. “We always apply just in case something happens,” she said.
Reed noted that it would collectively take about $14 billion from alternate revenue sources to replace the funding generated by local school property taxes.
If it were up to him, Reed said, he would probably replace property taxes with a combination of boosting the state's income tax and sales tax. But, he noted legislators from throughout the state have never hit upon a tax reform plan that all could agree on because “different areas of the state look at it differently.”
He noted that communities known for outlet stores that draw shoppers from other states would oppose a change to the sales tax while residents in the southeastern section of the state, where school districts typically get only 8 percent of their funding from state coffers, “want nothing to do with income tax.”
Reed commented that too many people in today's society want to keep the public services they've come to rely on, but they aren't willing to pay for them — for instance, through increased taxes or fees.
“If you want something, you've got to pay for it,” Reed said. “That's the biggest disconnect in government today.”
Reed praised officials in Homer City and neighboring Center Township for taking part in a state-conducted study to consider the feasibility of consolidating the two municipalities. Prior to the public town hall session, Reed huddled with local municipal representatives to discuss the merger proposal.
“I applaud them for being progressive and actually considering something that might move this community forward,” Reed said.
In addition to possible cost savings, he noted a merger would result in a community with a larger population that could qualify for increased levels of state and federal grants and low-interest loans.
Smith said local school officials support the proposal and any other efforts that could boost local economic development and strengthen the district tax base.
Homer City resident Sue Riley and Girard resident Eugene Sorrentino — both representatives of Canonsburg-based United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 23, which includes state liquor store employees in its membership — both protested the Corbett administration's proposal to privatize the liquor stores.
Riley said employees of the state stores are concerned they would lose their jobs or at least see their wages reduced if the stores were transferred to private control.
Reed said he disagrees with the governor's liquor store proposal and believes an altered version will emerge through the legislative committee process.
“The chief concern is that the employees won't have a state pension,” he noted. “That's why you're going to see changes to the proposal.”
Reed said he would like to see a proposal that preserves the current system of state-run stores but also allows for sales of wine in grocery stores and six-packs of beer at convenience stores. He said he believes that's the kind of change the majority of Pennsylvanians would like to see.
Riley later said she is opposed to grocery and convenience store sales because she feels underage teens would be able to gain illegal access to alcohol more easily.
Whatever revised system is provided for sales of spirits, Reed said, ““In no way should it be a revenue loser for the state. It should be long-term sustainable.”
Reed announced a new outreach program at his district offices. He said aides representing Pennsylvania's two United States senators will begin making periodic visits to the various offices to accept input and questions from local citizens.
A representative for Sen. Bob Casey is scheduled to visit Reed's office at the Homer City borough building 1-4 p.m. March 14. According to Reed, a representative for Sen. Pat Toomey will visit Reed's Blairsville office at a date to be announced.
Jeff Himler is an editor for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at724-459-6100, ext. 2910 or email@example.com.