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Greensburg Salem school board raises property taxes, OKs $43.5 million budget

Jacob Tierney
| Wednesday, June 29, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Greensburg Salem School District residents' property tax bills will go up 2.7 mills this year after a 5-4 school board vote Wednesday.

This brings the total millage to 87.22, and will fund the district's 2016-17 budget of about $43.5 million. The budget also passed 5-4 Wednesday.

Board members Frank Gazze, Rick Payha, Robin Savage, Stephen Thomas and Barbara Vernail voted for the budget and the tax increase, with Charlotte Kemerer, Ronald Mellinger, Jeffrey Metrosky and Nick Rullo opposing both.

“This is for the betterment of our students and the quality of education at Greensburg Salem,” Vernail said.

The increase is the maximum allowed by the state and will cost the average taxpayer about $52 more a year. This is not enough to cover all expenses, so the district will use about $281,000 from its reserves to cover the cost.

The 2016-17 budget is about $1 million larger than the previous year and most of the increase, about $877,000, comes from mandatory pension increases.

The vote prompted lively discussion as members chimed in to explain their decisions.

“I'm not a proponent of deficit spending. I think before we make some of these hikes, we should get our house in order before we keep spending money,” said Mellinger.

Metrosky agreed.

“For four years we've had a deficit budget passed. When we're out of money, what are we going to do?”

Savage said she did not want to raise taxes but could not make cuts that hurt educational programs.

“I am not going to cut anything from our students that is going to be detrimental,” she said.

The district has done all it can to control its costs without hurting students, and would need state relief in the form of funding or pension reform to balance the budget without major cuts, said Superintendent Eileen Amato.

“It's a much bigger issue. And what's been going on with the funding of education is going on statewide,” she said.

Despite the passage of the budget, there is one major question looming over the district's finances. The budget did not include any additional money for teacher salaries and benefits, but contract negotiations resumed this week.

The last round of negotiations left teachers without a contract for almost a year and ended in a stalemate as the teachers agreed to a one-year pay freeze, which expires in July.

Teacher salaries cost the district more than $12.7 million a year, so if a 2 percent raise were negotiated for all instructional staff, it would cost the district about $254,000.

The board also agreed to send a letter to the Westmoreland County tax assessment office requesting a county-wide property reassessment, which has not happened since the 1970s. Vernail prompted this initiative, and said many property owners are not paying their fair share due to inaccurate assessments.

The measure passed 6-3. Metrosky, Mellinger and Kemerer voted against sending the letter.

A reassessment would drive taxes higher for many property owners, Metrosky said.

Jacob Tierney is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6646 or jtierney@tribweb.com.

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