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Directors Pass Budget with Surplus, No Tax Increase

EAST WHEATFIELD TOWNSHIP — United School District’s budget for the 2021-22 school year calls for no tax increase and a surplus of more than $100,000.

Directors on Tuesday adopted, 7 to 1, the budget that provides $22,882,710 in revenues and expenses of $22,764,512, resulting in a surplus of $118,198. Board President Eric Matava, Vice President Dan Henning and directors Jim Fry, Gary Arblaster, Donald Bowers Jr., Tommey Heming and Shaun McGinnis voted to approve the budget. Board member Hunter Overdorff was the dissenting vote. Director Andrew McConville was absent.

Superintendent Barbara Parkins said the surplus is due to some of the COVID-19 grants, the federal CARES Act funding and Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, that were released during the 2020-21 school year.

Prior to the vote, Overdorff took the floor under Robert’s Rules of Order to voice his opposition to the motion to adopt the budget as well as to the 11.156 millage rate, as he expressed his support for property tax reform and proposed a reduction in taxes that would result in taxpayers being reimbursed.

“I stand here this evening to remind the board of education that our constituents are facing an incredibly difficult year, both financially and emotionally due to the global pandemic and outbreak of COVID-19,” he said. “Indiana County, a place we all call home, has had a tremendously difficult year as a result of the draconian closures and shutdowns forced upon us. Our school has not been an exception to those, all of which has caused a widespread economic downturn for our residents of four townships within the district.”

Overdorff said that even with the gradual reopenings, “our county unemployment rate still tragically sits at 7.1 percent. That is 1 percent higher than the state unemployment average and 2 percent higher than national numbers.”

“Moreover, during the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 5 percent of our families across four townships and two boroughs fell into the federal poverty designation,” he said, adding that the “income inequality now brings our total impoverished population to over 40 percent in the United School District. And it breaks my heart to see a school district like ours tax the population so deeply affected by poverty at the rate that we do.”

“It is even more disheartening to see the economic difficulties which … families will be faced with in the upcoming years. A 10 percent property tax increase at the county collected level, Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed personal income tax hike, and the rising cost of natural gas and electricity, which we’re already seeing in our local area due to the continuous attack on our fossil fuels.”

In an effort to “curb these financial hardships and lessen the burden of our asinine property taxes,” Overdorff said he proposed a plan that “would ensure every family see a reduction off their annual tax bills” and that the district had “the opportunity of a lifetime” this year to proactively introduce tax reform “and to help our community when they needed us most.”

“And I felt that a reduction this year would be strategically advantageous due to the district receiving an astonishing $2.4 million in federal funds provided by the CARES Act signed into law by former President Donald J. Trump and the American Rescue Plan enacted by President Joseph R. Biden Jr.”

Overdorff said the district has never seen a property tax reduction “in its lifetime and, in fact, increased taxes at 49.07 percent over a 10-year period from 2006 to 2016.”

“The school board itself, however, continues to boast the fact that there hasn’t been a tax hike since then; however, the increased levies from that time period equate to a rise in cost of $150 a year from 2006 to 2021 anyway.”

Overdorff said the reduction he sought to implement “would have given money back to the taxpayers instead of taking” and that the decreased millage rate would have only resulted in a local loss of revenues “totaling to about $22,250.”

“To put that minuscule loss into perspective, the United School District in its entirety runs on a $23 million operating budget. The … loss from my plan equates to roughly 0.001 percent of that total budget in expenditures for the 2021-22 fiscal year,” he said.

“It is truly a sad reflection when we increase the wages for our own employees but … neglect our own district families when a massive federal bailout comes our way,” he said.

“My disappointment is immeasurable.”

Following the vote, Matava issued a statement on the budget’s adoption.

“Each year we, along with other districts in the county and across the state, are faced with the challenge of developing a budget that is both financially sound and allows us to continue to offer existing as well as new and innovative opportunities to United students,” Matava said.

“We continue to confront harsh realities related to declining enrollment, an outdated and unfair charter school payment system and, most recently, a global pandemic which has forced us to adapt our operations to constantly changing circumstances.”

At the same time, he said, “we understand that members of our community are facing equally unprecedented challenges in their own lives as a result of these current events.” Matava said the district started with a budget deficit of nearly $1 million but with additional revenues and reductions in expenditures, put together a budget that reflects a surplus and “for the fifth year in a row has no property taxes.”

“We’re proud of that and we’re proud that, thanks to the efforts of past and present board members, administration and our staff, we’ve been able to adapt in the face of changing circumstances in such a way that we’ve been able to maintain the district’s solid financial position without having to ask the taxpayers to shoulder more of the burden,” he said.

“Recognizing that our work is never done, we’re committed to continuing to explore innovative and fiscally responsible solutions that allow the district to sustain the high standards of education that the students and the community of United School District expect and they deserve.”

Directors also approved the levying and assessment of two per capita taxes of $5 on each district resident 18 and older; a 0.85 percent wage tax; a 0.5 percent real estate transfer tax and a $5 local services tax. They also set the discount payment rate at 2 percent and penalty rate at 10 percent.

The 2021-22 Homestead and Farmstead Exclusion Resolution also was adopted, with the maximum real estate reduction amount applicable to each approved homestead and each approved farmstead as $200.63.

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