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Belle Vernon Area board OK's tax hike

The Belle Vernon Area School Board passed its 2011-2012 budget with a hefty tax increase, despite having cut more than $2 million from the spending plan.

The board in February approved an early preliminary budget in order to receive special permission to raise taxes above a state index.

According to the index, Belle Vernon Area's taxes could only have been increased by 1.38 mills in its two Westmoreland County municipalities - Rostraver Township and North Belle Vernon - and 0.39 mills in its three Fayette County municipalities - Washington Township, Belle Vernon and Fayette City.

The $32,493,181 budget approved 5-2 by the board Thursday carries a real estate tax increase of 4.76 mills in Westmoreland County and up to 1.18 mills in Fayette County.

One mill of real estate taxes in the district generates $173,000 in revenue.

Directors Dale Patterson, Dan Sepesky, John Nusser Jr., Charles Kraft and Karl Glover voted in favor of the budget.

Aaron Bialon and Joe Grata cast dissenting votes.

Bialon voted by conference call.

Directors Toni Jo Kunka and Ed Naylor were absent.

After approval of the budget, some school board members said they are far from solving the district's financial problems.

"This will represent a 14 percent total property tax increase over the last three years," Grata said. "It's an unsustainable path ... partly the federal government's maybe responsibility, more so, probably the state. But, there are other reasons for which we have these problems."

"The state has cut the fund where we're at bare- bones operation," Glover added.

Several of the school directors have long said that a tax hike well above the index would be mandatory, possibly for several years to come, because of ongoing increases in health care, employee retirement, and general operational costs and reductions in property tax collections and other local revenues.

Not knowing until late in the budgetary process how much state and federal aid may come to the district each year has complicated the issue, board members have said.

Some of the board members claim that a major employee contract has created many of the problems.

More than $1 million in salaries took effect in the summer of 2009 as part of a five-year contract mainly for teachers that also included custodians, bus drivers, secretaries, janitors and transportation employees.

The employees will receive $1 million more in salaries each year, which board members have said will amount to $15 million more in real estate tax dollars through the life of the contract.

Sepesky, who strongly objected to the teacher contract, said other moves approved by former directors, created much of the financial distress.

"Two and a half, four years ago ... the district spent $10 million on two new buildings and all this other stuff we bought," he said. "Do you think we needed to borrow $10 million to build two new buildings for programs that we won't have maybe in two years• Then we refinanced bonds that cost this district $2.4 million. This was all done with lies and deception. When those contracts were signed, we were told day after day and month after month that we could afford it.

"We are trying to keep this place afloat for things that happened two, three, four years ago. I love this school district. I went through this school district. My kids are going through this school district. We are doing the best with can with the hand that we were dealt."

Superintendent Stephen Russell said the board and administration began cutting into a deficit of more than $4 million in October.

Sweeping cuts in programs, a pay freeze accepted by administrators and some employees, savings from employee attrition and retirements and a reduction in supply orders were major factors in reducing the deficit to about $1.5 million, he said.

Roughly $1.4 million of the district's $2.7 million fund balance will be used - along with the tax increase - to balance the budget.

The board last month curtailed the district's middle school Spanish program, the only program that will be eliminated next school year.

Several residents at the meeting complained about the tax increase, but Patterson reminded them that the quality of education and programs in the district will hardly change.

"In everyone's comments, you never hear the word children mentioned, and that's the reason we sit here, for the children," he said.

Business manager Eileen Navish said she recently learned that the district could receive more than $370,000 in additional state funds, according to a budget agreed upon by Corbett and the general assembly.

The governor had yet to sign off on the budget at the time of the board meeting.

The board had anticipated no accountability block grant funds for next school year.

Navish said the district would receive $185,019 from the program, according to the proposed state budget.

She said basic education subsidy for Belle Vernon Area is projected to increase by $192,035 to $9,161,937 for next school year.

Last month, the board extended its early retirement incentive program.

Russell said several other teacher retirements occurred since then because of the extension.

Because of those retirements, the board last night rescinded the furloughs of teachers Kimberly Lynn Humbert, David Mills, Michael J. Pappas and Lindsay Williams.

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