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Latrobe considers 6-mill tax hike

| Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Greater Latrobe taxpayers are facing a 6-mill property tax rate hike in what school district officials are calling a "dire" budget.

After restructuring debt service payments to produce a $600,000 short-term savings, the school board Tuesday adopted a $38.4 million preliminary spending plan for the 2004-05 school year that calls for a 6-mill increase in the district's 56-mill real-estate tax rate, rather than an 8-mill wallop.

Administrators cited a 55 percent increase in medical insurance costs as the major culprit behind the proposed increase.

The roughly $900,000 increase in those costs "wiped out" the savings that had been projected by eliminating a plan to begin full-day kindergarten and by not filling some vacant teaching and administrative posts.

To soften the blow on taxpayers, the board approved stretching the payment period of a bond issuance from 1998 from nine years to 19 years. But, while that will translate into smaller payments over the next two school years, it also will end up costing about $700,000 more over the life of the debt.

School Director Michael Zorch opposed the plan and suggested investing the $600,000 savings into the district's aging technology program, rather than trimming the proposed tax increase.

"I think we have to stop putting off what we have to pay today till tomorrow," Zorch said.

Over the past several years, the board has completed a district-wide building renovation program that totaled more than $70 million. A series of bonds were issued to cover the renovation costs.

"We have made a tremendous investment, and at some point, the community is going to have to accept that," Zorch added. "We have to pay for what we've done; we can't keep cutting things."

Superintendent Dr. William D. Stavisky provided additional proposed cuts -- which include staff reductions -- for the board to consider before passage of a final budget in June.

But he admitted that the nine recommendations "add up to less than one mill" in savings.

"None of these are things we want to do," Stavisky added. "It's hard to sit here and recommend these things, but the budget situation is dire."

Zorch, however, was adamant against trimming the tax increase if it means cutting teaching positions or educational programs.

"I'm voting no on this," Zorch said. "All the experts agree that the best way to educate kids is to get them early, and we've already cut full-day kindergarten. Now we're talking about more cuts ... are you kidding me?"

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