Unionville tax increase rate less certain

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Board president signals support for higher rate, but it remains unclear whether there are enough votes to go from 1.0% to 1.4%

By Mike McGann, Editor, UnionvilleTimes.com
EAST MARLBOROUGH — What had seemed to be a firmly decided tax increase — 1.0% in Chester County — became just a tad less secure when Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education president Timotha Trigg said Monday that she now felt that a 1.4% increase would better serve the school district in the years to come.

That means that instead of producing one likely budget scenario for Monday night’s school board meeting, the administration is again being asked to generate somewhere between three and five spending plans — further complicated by the increasing likelihood that some $820,000 in state funding not currently budgeted is now expected to be restored when the state legislature completes the budget later this month.

Still, even with Trigg’s move to support a 1.4% increase — which amounts to about $20 a year in additional taxes for the average Unionville property owner — it appears likely that at least one more vote will be needed to change the tax rate before next Monday’s school board meeting.

While it appears that members Jeff Leiser, Holly Manzone and Eileen Bushelow — all of whom previously backed the 1.4% rate — will join Trigg, member Jeff Hellrung, who has at various times been on both sides of the tax rate discussion, signaled Monday night he intends to support a 1.0% rate, as did Keith Knauss and Paul Price. Frank Murphy didn’t take a public stance Monday night, but has been consistent in backing the lower rate. Corrine Sweeney, who couldn’t attend Monday’s meeting due to a schedule conflict, previously has supported the lower rate.

The difference between the two tax rates amounts to about $213,000 in total revenue for the district and while Trigg said she was comfortable with how the 1.0% rate impacted the 2011-12 budget, she said upon further consideration, she had worries about the fiscal hole it might cause in the 2012-13 budget and beyond, as a number of unsustainable one-time cuts — $150,000 in curriculum and $75,000 from capital reserve in specific — could not only be repeated, but needed to replenished in coming years.

“I know that we’ve been split as a board,” Trigg said. “From my vote, I feel comfortable with the 1% for this year, but the more I look at next year, the more I lean toward 1.4%.”

In addition to her concerns about the curriculum and capital reserve budgets, she said there were no funds in the budget for school bus replacement — something that will have to be addressed now that the board opted to keep busing in-house, May 31.

Robert Cochran, the district’s director of business and operations, said some $190,000 in savings from streamlining the transportation department during the coming fiscal year would be used to replenish the bus fleet, at least to some some extent, allowing that somewhere between $300,000 and $400,000 would need to be spent on new buses.

Superintendent of Schools Sharon Parker asked for some philosophical guidance from the board — should the focus be on restoring job cuts and programs, setting funding aside in reserve or a mix? The consensus seemed to be for a mix, but it appears that the administration team will have to put together a number of scenarios — potentially with both tax rates — for a final decision, likely but not necessarily at next Monday night’s formal board meeting at Unionville High School. The board has until June 30 to give final approval to the budget and could call a special meeting to finalize the budget.

Monday night’s meeting is expected to have a fairly thorough discussion of the pros and cons of boosting the tax rate. A preview of the crux of the issue came when Monday night, when the other board members who previously supported the 1.0% increase were quick to note the positive benefits of the $820,000 in state funding that seems likely to be restored to the district.

“There’s a high probability of some $800,000 reappearing,” Knauss, the board’s Finance Committee chair, asked Trigg, “Does that make you any more comfortable?”

Trigg indicated that it did not entirely, suggesting that at least some of those funds should be earmarked for future budget years if possible — plus having a slightly larger budget number would mean a tiny bit more wiggle room under Act 1 in coming years — especially as legislation continues to move forward that would limit or remove district’s ability to file for exceptions to Act 1 limits.

“My priority would be in preserving future budgets,” she said, “and to have a bigger base to work off.”

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