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New budget to hurt taxpayers most

| Thursday, April 22, 2004

Mt. Lebanon school directors considered three budget drafts, and the one they ultimately chose as the official preliminary budget would cost taxpayers the most.

The school board narrowly approved a $66 million preliminary budget with a 3-mill tax increase that would raise the property tax rate by 14.9 percent, to 23.16 mills. Under the tax increase, the owner of a $135,750 home -- the median in Mt. Lebanon -- would pay $407 more in taxes, or $3,144.

Of the 3-mill increase, 2.6 would go toward the operating budget and the other 0.4 mills would start a capital and maintenance fund to pay for emergency or one-time-only expenses, something board President Ron Hoffman said he's advocated in the decade he's been on the school board.

"Each year, we have to scramble for funds for emergencies" such as replacing equipment, he said.

The district's seven elementary schools are in various stages of renovation, and there is talk of a high school renovation when that project is done. The 0.4 mills would translate to more than $835,000 for the fund. One mill brings in about $2.1 million for the district.

Hoffman said the district should not dip into its surplus or fund balance, currently around $4.8 million, for those types of expenses.

The fund balance, which represents 7.25 percent of the budget, helps the district to obtain lower interest rates on bond issues, and came in handy when the district floated a $50 million bond for the elementary school renovations and construction of an indoor swimming pool. The pool is still in the planning stages.

The other two options before the board were budgets with a 2.5-mill and 2.6-mill tax increase, totally for the operating budget.

Three school board members said they found all three proposed budgets unacceptable. James Blazeck, Jean Palcho and Rodney Shepherd voted against the tax increase.

"I just feel like the budget has gone out of control," Shepherd said.

The largest expense leading to the tax increase was salaries and benefits, and board members noted that the largest expense in any school district is its employees.

Palcho noted that the district's budget called for hiring 17 to 19 new employees, and replacing 14 of 15 retirees. Student population has declined by nearly 100 students in the past two years to 5,544, while per-pupil cost has increased by more than $2,000 in that time, to $11,969. Shepherd suggested cutting positions by attrition.

All four new board members -- Sheldon Campbell, Rene Garson, Sue Rose and Joe Rodella -- supported the budget and the tax increase. Rodella was out of town on business and didn't vote, but offered a statement that Hoffman read at the meeting.

The district raised taxes last year by 2.04 mills, and the municipality raised taxes by 0.35 mills in December. Residents turned out at commissioners' meetings in favor of the municipal tax increase, saying it was needed to continue services at the level they wanted.

But the three residents that spoke at Monday's school board meeting were fed up.

"This budget as proposed doesn't deserve your approval," said Bill Schmeltzer.

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