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Freeport Area residents likely to see tax increase

| Thursday, May 26, 2016, 11:15 p.m.

The proposed 2016-17 real estate tax increase for Freeport Area School District residents is likely to become reality.

That's the opinion of school board President Dan Lucovich.

“I think so because this is the last year for ‘exceptions,' and we want to take advantage of that so we don't fall further behind,” Lucovich said.

He was referring to the exceptions to the tax state's Act 1, passed in 2006 under which districts can claim certain reasons for increasing local real estate taxes beyond the state's inflation-based index.

Otherwise, the district has to undertake a referendum to increase taxes beyond its index and put the decision to the voters. Statewide, that's happened only a handful of times.

The increases for next school year amount to 5.9 percent (7.9 mills) in Buffalo Township, Butler County and 4.1 percent (2.4 mills) for the district's Armstrong County communities, Freeport and South Buffalo.

The disparity is because of tax equalization because the district straddles two counties. Business Manager Ryan Manzer said even if there were no tax increase in Armstrong County, the district still would have to bump up taxes by 2.4 mills in Butler County. That's because home market values in Buffalo Township are rising faster than assessed values and the tax levy has to be proportionate among the district's communities.

Even with the additional $800,000 in new revenue the tax increases would bring, Manzer said the district still is looking at using $1.6 million of its current budget surplus to balance the coming year's budget.

When the board approved its $30.2 million preliminary budget May 4, the board talked about trying to make budget cuts to reduce the tax increase. However, school officials said there is little leeway to cut.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Lucovich asked Manzer, “Cutting music or art, cutting programs; that's the only way we can impact this budget?” Manzer said yes.

“What we are trying to do is just maintain our programs,” Superintendent Ian Magness said.

Lucovich said cutting such programs really isn't an option because they prove to be a benefit to the students. For example, he said about 23 percent of the high school's students participate in the marching band.

“We can cut a lot of stuff out here, yeah,” Lucovich said. “But our kids are doing so well.”

“We're trying to be responsible,” Magness said of the proposed increases. “This not for just now but we're thinking forward to the future.”

Manzer cautioned about using more reserve funds to bridge the current budget deficit. Ultimately, he said, school districts that deplete their reserves are open to financial problems down the road.

The board discussed trying to save money by sending students who now attend mandatory full-day classes at Lenape Technical School to another vocational school.

They could save money by sending vo-tech students elsewhere, such as Northern Westmoreland in New Kensington, where they would attend vocational classes for half a day and get their regular classes at Freeport Area, according to some board members.

However, Lucovich said Freeport Area's involvement is in Lenape's school charter and the district could end up being sued by Lenape and its other member districts.

He said that was considered by Lenape officials about six years ago when Freeport Area did send some of its students to Northern Westmoreland. Lucovich said the matter was resolved without legal action.

Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Tribune-Review.

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