- Last Updated on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 00:56
- Published on Wednesday, 15 February 2012 00:56
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The sky’s the limit,” was the message sent by elected Westmoreland County officials when the locality’s School Board and Board of Supervisors met jointly to discuss school division budget considerations that will drive 2012 tax rates.
The Westmoreland School Board requested an additional $2.6 million in local support one year ago and the Supervisors responded with a $750,000 increase. The Supervisors stood firm in their refusal to raise taxes and the county’s school division received 61% of the taxes collected by the locality in the current budget year.
On Feb. 7 the Westmoreland School Board asked the Supervisors to give the county school division an additional $2,631,231 in local funding. The county’s real estate tax rate would jump from the current 46 cents per hundred dollar value to 65 cents, according to Westmoreland
County Finance Office calculations.
County Administrator Norm Risavi launched the joint session with a detailed presentation of graphs and charts depicting a condition of flat-lined or diminished streams of revenue. Numbers from state government authorities confirmed Risavi’s calculations to underscore the gloomy economic picture. In a period of diminishing returns, county taxpayers were less able to support the county schools.
Despite Risavi’s grim assessment, Division Superintendent Rebecca Lowry’s 2012-2013 school budget presentation called for greater support from local sources. Taxpayers would be asked to subsidize pay scale adjustments to implement appropriate step placements for county teachers. Without additional funding to support corrective measures, fourth year teachers would earn no more than the division’s first year recruits.
An additional gap the local taxpayers would be asked to subsidize involves the state’s economically dire condition. Localities will incur the obligation of contributing to employee pension funds state revenues previously supported. School improvements and additional school employees would helped drive the proposed school budget’s bottom line yet higher.
One year ago the Westmoreland Supervisors declined to increase county taxes for the purpose of supporting a larger payment to the schools. “It just isn’t a good idea to raise taxes in the middle of a recession,” then Board of Supervisors Chairman Woody Hynson said.
Current Board of Supervisors Chairman Darryl Fisher and Hynson concurred during last week’s discussion that economic conditions have not improved. Hynson explained that his District 4 waterfront subdivision constituents are no longer as affluent as they were when they arrived in their retirement communities. Past economic events and higher living expenses have made the older population less affluent, he advised.
Freshman District 2 Supervisor Rosemary Mahan, a former School Board member, shared a different take on what the county’s taxpaying residents can afford to pay. Mahan echoed the stated sentiments of currently seated School Board members when she opined that residents will happily pay the higher taxes if they know the additional revenue will be used to improve Westmoreland County’s schools.
Hopeful that the bitter arguments the two deliberative bodies aired in public during the past year’s budget preparations would be avoided, Supervisors Fisher and Hynson agreed to take the question to taxpaying residents. Both Board of Supervisors veterans appeared certain that constituents will make their feelings known.
Risavi put all parties on notice that Social Services Department, Sheriff’s Office and county government employees will expect to be included in the salary adjustments and benefits enhancements being offered to employees of the Westmoreland County schools.
How high could tax rates go to support such measures? The real estate rate could double, according to that meeting’s estimates, but the additional revenues would help support the economic development professional that Supervisor Mahan wants the county to engage.
School Board Vice Chairman Gernard Reed applauded the Supervisors’ apparent willingness to cooperate in imposing higher taxes to support Westmoreland County schools.
District 3 Supervisor Dorothy Tate echoed Reed’s comment.
“We want the same thing,” Tate told her School Board counterparts.
“We need to sing the same chorus of Kumbaya and come up with a plan.”
Superintendent Lowry came to work in Westmoreland in July 2011 and inherited the school division’s current operating budget. As the Feb. 7 joint meeting neared its conclusion, she commented, “This has been a very pleasant experience and I look forward to working out all of these concerns.”
Risavi had the last word as he acknowledged the need to look to the future and attempt to introduce improvements.
“It will be very slow crawling out of the ditch that we are in,” he stated.
“People who talk to the Supervisors and me are always concerned about the money. They realize you can have anything you want as long as you are willing to pay for it. Sometimes the ones who pay are less enthusiastic!”