Clarion Area raises taxes to index limit

 After deadlocking 4-4 on a real estate tax increase, the Clarion Area School Board debated the subject again before agreeing 6-2 to raise taxes 3.7 mills, the maximum the district could go this year.

During the past few months, a few district residents have come forward to present their opinions on what the school board should do regarding real estate taxes.

Several residents said raising the tax will be detrimental to the overall property value of houses in the district and another reminded the board of those who live on a fixed income.

On June 14, the school board discussed not if a tax increase should be put in place, but how much of an increase.

Board president Eric Funk said, “I am against real estate tax and I think taxes are poison. But if we want to keep the same programs we have now, we have no choice. If we’re not raising taxes, we’re cutting programs.”

Board member George Alexander added, “I think if we don’t spend all of the money from the (building renovation) bond, we can compensate with taxes by only raising by 1.6 or 1.7 mills instead of raising it to the index at 3.7 mills.”

District superintendent Michael Stahlman stated between the two schools, the estimated total renovation cost is around $8.1 million.

Alexander continued, “We will be receiving around $1.47 million as reimbursement from the state through (building renovation) PlanCon, which means the total cost on the renovation is around $6.6 million.”

The district is able to return any money not used after five years.

Alexander’s plan runs on the idea if the school is able to return several million dollars, raising the tax to the index was not a necessary action to take.

Board member Julie Hartley countered, “It is prudent that we do the tax increase at this time. With this project and solid fiscal management, we’re actually going to be able to turn this district around and be proactive instead of reactive to fiscal responsibilities.

“Anything we have done so far has been crisis management instead of being able to put money away. I would like to see this district be in control of the expenditures.”

Funk responded, “Taxes you don’t raise today, can never be recaptured.”

Board member Hugh Henry expressed his concern, saying, “My fear is in 36 or 48 months, we won’t receive the money we should have and the tax increase doesn’t do us any good.”

Board member Shane Kriebel added, “There are no jobs in this town. How is this all going to come together? How is this all going to work? I don’t think a tax increase is necessary.”

Hartley replied, “The problem is there is no good answer. No matter what it comes down to, not just our programs, but everything could be in jeopardy.

“What we do know, is if we don’t do it, it could hurt us. We really have cut and trimmed as much as we can over the years.”

Funk informed the board 86 percent of school districts in Pennsylvania are raising their taxes this year and real estate tax is the only thing Clarion Area has to raise to receive more income.

A motion was made to raise the tax to the index limit of 3.7 mills but since one member of the board was not present, the motion ended in a tie of four to four.

The discussion continued with several board members making points to their opinion of where the tax increase should be set.

Funk reminded the board, “If the tax is raised to the index every year, it will allow us not to run out of money for at least six years as opposed to only two years.”

Alexander continued to stand his ground on not raising taxes to the limit while Hartley disputed the idea, saying, “We have to take control of this and fight aggressively. I don’t see how we can protect the programs we have without being aggressive.”

Board member Todd Bauer said, “I wish we could find a way to not ask our employees to do more or take less, but to find a way to get our community behind the school. There just seems to be such disconnect between this school and the people of this school district.”

Hartley reminded Bauer of how much the community does help the school by supporting booster clubs and athletics.

Bauer continued with his point by addressing his concern for the community not engaging in discussion or attending the meetings to show their support and voice their opinion.

“I am willing to invest in these kids and if raising the taxes keeps programs and their education where it’s at, then I am going to support it,” board member Milissa Bauer said. “I see it as investing into our whole community. I look at this tax money as an investment to save for the future.

“I look at the school for the whole community, for the families, for the teachers, for the business owners, and I just want to make sure everybody in the community is willing to take that step with us.”

Hartley responded, “I agree but I don’t think we will ever have the entire community on board with us, and I don’t think we can ask our teachers to stretch any thinner than they already are.”

After more discussion, the motion was set back into place – again for raising taxes to the index of 3.7 mills – and was approved with six votes against two.

During final comments, several board members mentioned how much they would still like to see a consolidation of the Clarion Area and Clarion-Limestone school districts to make one, as they believe it would give the students the best opportunities for their education.

The next board meeting is set for 7 p.m. July 19 at Clarion Area High School.