School districts in Pennsylvania are working to set their budgets for the 2020-2021 school year, and are potentially facing a $1 billion loss in local revenue as a result of coronavirus, according to the Pennsylvania Association of School Board Officials (PASBO) study. Even if the economy recovers quickly, and there’s no predicting if it will, that still leaves schools with a predicted loss of $850 in revenue.
So how will they make up for the gap? Naturally, the focus shifts to property taxes. Raising property taxes is never a desired solution, but it’s among the most obvious and effective. While some school districts in the capital region are not considering a property tax increase, and instead choosing to cut programs, contract out services to reduce spending, or drawing upon reserves, many others say a tax increase is unavoidable.
Pennsylvania is not unique in this dilemma, just last month Nashville approved a 34% property tax increase to account for revenue loss as a result of COVID-19. For a property appraised at $250,000, that would mean an increase of about $666.25 per year. This tax increase, compounded by any other financial hardships property owners have faced this year is a significant stressor.
It’s important to note that in Pennsylvania that the Act 1 index caps how much school property tax rates can rise. It takes into account the average statewide weekly wage, which is likely to be lower in wake of this pandemic. To go above the index requires state or voter approval.
School districts across the Commonwealth are having their budgetary discussions now. As property owners, it’s important to stay aware of what’s being proposed in case it stands to impact the tax rate on your residential or commercial property. Let’s take a look at a few local school districts to see how they are addressing their budgetary issues and whether this could result in a property tax increase in your township.
Camp Hill School District
The Camp Hill School Board is recommending a 3% tax increase to support its preliminary $24.7 million budget for 2020-21. By going with a tax increase of that size, it left the district facing a $403,458 revenue shortfall as opposed to one that would be double that amount if the tax rate was frozen. The district anticipates a post-COVID-19 loss of nearly $431,000 in local and state revenue so it trimmed its proposed spending by $116,740 to adjust for that. It is looking to use some of its $6.2 million unassigned reserves to bring the budget into balance.
Central Dauphin School District
Central Dauphin School Board says they are looking at every possibility including cutting nearly $300,000 from their budget without giving up things that would pose difficulties for students. The board must next consider approving a preliminary $204.2 million budget that still has a $2.4 million revenue shortfall to close to bring it into balance. The options laid on the table for the board include a mix of ideas that range from no tax increase and dipping into reserves to raising property taxes by the 3.1% allowable tax increase under the Act 1 index.
Cumberland Valley School District
Cumberland Valley School Board feels that a property tax freeze is not feasible for the district. The district anticipates a $3.1 million loss in local revenue, $300,000 in lost interest earnings, and a projected budget deficit of $2.4 million. Without the additional $2.3 million in revenue the district would receive from an Act 1 index allowable property tax increase of 2.6%, the deficit grows to almost $5 million.
Derry Township School District
While no tax increase is expected in the Derry Township School District, it is going to be a challenging year. And Derry Township is in a particularly unique situation. The amusement tax brings in about $1.5 million annually, and with Hersheypark and its related venues being closed due to the coronavirus, that could be a big hit to their bottom line. How they plan to make up for the delta is still in discussion.
Lower Dauphin School District
Lower Dauphin School District has also been dealt a uniquely challenging hand. Not only are they dealing with the financial fallout of the coronavirus like everyone else, but they’re also the school district that’s home to Three Mile Island Nuclear Generation Station. The shutdown of TMI is a loss of roughly $300,000 in payments in addition to taxes that the plant once made. Despite the loss, the school board already approved a budget on Monday, and they were able to make ends meet without raising taxes by borrowing about $4 million from their reserve funds.
Northern York County School District
Northern York was already looking at a $1.5 million shortfall pre-CVOID, which had to do with health insurance increases, pension payments and other increases. Now with the expected loss of close to $1 million in earned income tax and less revenue from realty transfer taxes because of the hold put on real estate activity, that gap grows closer to $3.5 million. To bridge this gap, the district does not plan to increase property taxes, at least yet. Instead, they announced they would cut costs by moving to full day kindergarten which reduces midday transportation. They will also put a hold on any construction or renovation, and outsource its instructional aid duties to an educational agency.
West Shore School District
West Shore School District is anticipating a significant reduction in revenues related to earned income tax. As a result, a budget with a property-tax increase is currently on the table. For West Shore’s Cumberland County communities, it’s a 1.63 percent tax increase, and it’s an increase of 1.16 percent in York County. The budget also relies on $1 million from the school district’s reserves.
How would an increase in property taxes impact you? If you own commercial or residential real estate, this will affect you directly. And even if you don’t own real estate, there will still be a trickledown effect. If you rent your home or place of business, landlords may be forced to increase rent to pass off some of these costs. Or businesses may increase the cost of their goods or services to help balance their own books.
There are many unknowns in our community, government, and economy right now. What we do know is that everyone has endured change and hardship to some degree as the result of the pandemic. School districts, just like all of us, are looking hard for solutions that will keep them afloat while having the least negative impact on teachers, students, and the community.
What is your opinion on increasing property taxes to help school districts make up for financial losses due to COVID-19? Join in the conversation by leaving a comment below.