Unionville board likely to limit tax hike

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Members seem ready to keep increase to Act I limits

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — Barring a last-minute change of heart, the Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education seems prepared to limit the tax increase for the 2011-12 school year to just 1.36% in Chester County and 5.04% in Delaware County — less than half of what state limits could potentially allow for Chester County residents.

The large variance between two counties comes because of a re-balancing of property values between the two counties — in previous years, Delco taxpayers have paid lower rates relative to Chester County. For the first time in more than a decade, Chester County’s property values went down.

During Monday night’s Finance Committee meeting of the board, Finance Chair Keith Knauss polled his colleagues on whether the district would file for two exceptions to the state’s Act I limits for Special Education and pension costs. Taking those exceptions could potentially boost the tax increase to 3.3% in Chester County and 7.06% in Delaware County — but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of support for raising taxes that high. For the current budget year, the board opted to only take about half of the maximum tax increase allowable, settling in on a 2.88% tax increase for Chester County residents.

In fact, none of the board members supported the idea of having a tax increase that high this time around — the only concerns were about maintaining flexibility during the budgeting process and allowing for unanticipated issues.

“As a conservative planner, I’d like to keep options open within the four months of the budgeting process,” board member Jeff Leiser said. “But raising taxes by 3.3% or 7.06% is unconscionable. At this point, I lean toward keeping it at the Act I limits.”

There was some concern about locking the numbers in without having a complete understanding of what the numbers will mean in terms of education programs.

“I’m not comfortable locking in until we know what we’re going to have — until we know what we can do and what we can’t do,” board member Eilieen Bushelow said.

Board president Timotha Trigg floated the idea of taking just one of the two exceptions as way to maximize flexibility.

“There’s a lot to be said for keeping options open,” she said. “But it would be almost a symbolic decision. I can’t imagine the board taking all of the exceptions.”

Other board members were more vehement about keeping the increase down.

“I’m having trouble with even (raising taxes to) the Act I index,” board member Frank Murphy said. He noted that he was concerned about state education funding being cut and the long-term impact of pensions and that additional austerity needed to be embraced to “provide for the long-term health of the district.”

Knauss has been on the record opposing taking the exceptions and keeping the maximum increase to no more than the Act I limits, and was supported by Paul Price, Corrine Sweeney and Jeff Hellrung. With Murphy and Leiser, the board appears to have a minimum of six votes favoring the lower limit.

Although opinions could change before a formal vote, the tally appears to be 6-3 against the district applying for the exceptions. While applying and being approved for the exceptions doesn’t require the district to use them in its final budget, setting them aside at this point in the budget process locks them out and guarantees a tax increase of no larger than the Act I index.

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