Superintendents discuss property tax reform

What, if anything, can be done about Pennsylvania property tax?

Three area superintendents tried to answer this question at a panel discussion hosted by Gettysburg Area Democracy for America.

Read about other topics raised at the panel discussion

Below is a sampling of their responses. Some sections have been cut for length and clarity.

Eric Eshbach, Northern York County School District

081912-sub-Eric-Eshbach.jpg“That’s really the task of the basic education funding commission that has been put together by the state to take a look at how funding can be provided. But if you eliminate it it runs a risk of reducing something that we hold dear in Pennsylvania, and that’s local control….

“We’re unique in that we have 45,000 school board members in the state of Pennsylvania and each of those school board members has a voice, and they can represent the local people…

“It’s a tough option to sell to take away the property tax. There’s been a lot of options that have been discussed. They have supporters and detractors. Increasing the sales tax went around for awhile. Expanding the sales tax to all areas was one suggestion that went around. Instituting the sin taxes on cigarettes or alcohol has been suggested, but they can’t overcome the fact that, in all honesty, property tax is well understood.

“As much as we may like it or we may hate it, people can really understand it. It’s visible to those of us that pay it. It’s stable, it’s predictable, it’s a formula that you can figure out. It has a base generally reserved for the local government that’s not reached by state or federal taxing, and it’s a hard tax to avoid. You can’t claim exemption on your property tax.

“It does also bear some relationship to the services it supports… Education is a benefit that attaches to property, and that is reflected in property taxes. Students have a right to attend schools in the district in which they reside, and the values of that education can be applied to the students that come out and live in that community.”

Larry Redding, Gettysburg Area School District

031411-larryredding.jpg“I would also throw out into this conversation the method of collecting property taxes. And I’ve always contended that if I had to pay my federal tax in one tax bill, I would have probably started the revolt… We get those one or two big tax bill payments at once that we haven’t budgeted for necessarily, and it’s due. For years, when I’m filling out my federal tax form and I’m thinking, ‘If I had to pay that in one payment like my property tax… My sense of federal taxes would be different.

“So I think part of what I would advocate for the funding commission… I would say they need to be looking at how it’s collected and paid also and maybe spread that payment out over months. I know that option is there to some degree, but not to the level that we have with our sales tax, our Pennsylvania tax, our federal tax. And all of those end up being dollar-wise much more than we pay on the property side…

“There has been an idea  floated by a member from the Carlisle School District, Tim Potts, on collecting funds on a one-time to help offset the pension. If all of us could bring our pension costs down to 2 percent of our budget, we wouldn’t be having a major conversation about all the rest of our funding. That piece is such a driving force that we have no control over.”

Read more about pension reform in Pennsylvania

Wesley Doll, Upper Adams School District

doll“I also had Tim Potts down as a possibility. I know (Tim Potts’ idea) has become public, but I haven’t heard a whole lot about that at the state level, and I’m not sure how that got lost in the shuffle… That’s your stock transaction tax. So any time a transaction is made there’s a minute percentage that goes toward tax. And it’s something that could be utilized to help offset some of the educational expenses that we’re seeing.

Read more about Tim Potts’ funding formula

“My wife had worked at a property in Hagerstown that processed credit card transactions, so it’s very similar. Every time you use a credit card somewhere, you are charged, whether you know it or not, a couple cents for that transactions. So it would be something very similar to that. So any time you use a credit card you get processed a few cents. So that’s the Tim Potts idea, and it seems like something that could be very well accessible, and it could be a benefit.

“We’re in a situation right now where we have to look at alternatives so that we don’t keep going to the local tax base. And we’re talking about things that hit deep in my heart when I’m looking at education and what we have to provide kids. We’re talking about cutting student programs, we’re talking about outsourcing a variety of things, which impacts a lot of the people that are employed doing some of these things in our districts…

“So we’re looking at a way to possibly replace some of those local people. And I’m being forced to look at those as options. The possibility of closing schools. That’s something I don’t want to think about or even begin to do the investigation. We’re in a situation now where we have no other option but to look at some of these ideas.

“There’s always the idea of potential furloughs.. I don’t know how much more we can cut. So I think we do need to look at other options, and Larry and Eric had mentioned a number of good ideas. I do think we need to look at some sort of public school formula for funding public education. Something that’s fair, something that’s predictable and something according to the community need. Every single district in our commonwealth is different. So there needs to be some kind of formula that can address those differences.”

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Mapping Mark Walters: Amended use

What stone structure's arch looms in the background?

What stone structure’s arch looms in the background?

In covering a litany of conditional use hearings, zoning board hearings and other land use and development matters that seem to hamper economic progress, I wonder if Civil War soldiers had to apply for proper permits to use structures as field hospitals.

I realize the ridiculousness of that. But could you imagine? A Union soldier wheelbarrowing an ailing, bloody body over to a nearby barn, only to be met by a code enforcement officer at the door.

“This property isn’t zoned for medical use,” the officer would tell the soldier, who would have to begin the cumbersome process of applying for either a variance or a zoning amendment. That would undoubtedly take months, during which the ailing body would be a carcass and the Battle of Gettysburg would be an afterthought.

What structure in this week’s selfie was used during the July 1863 battle despite it not being build for such use?

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Mapping Mark Walters: Ice bucket challenge

It was only a matter of time before someone called me out for the ALS ice bucket challenge. As it turned out, I was challenged by more than one person, however they were both named Tim. In case you’re wondering, I donated $20 — $10 for each challenge.

Can you guess where I was doused with cold water in this week’s video installment?

Watch this week’s video Mapping Mark Walters at

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Mapping Mark Walters: Seeking umbrage

Do the wood beams give it away?

Do the wood beams give it away?

For the first indoor installment of Mapping Mark, I am a tad concerned that the roofing behind my head is a dead giveaway.

If not, I do not know of many hints that will not give it away.

Continue reading

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Mapping Mark Walters: Cash or card

What multi-level, public structure stands behind me?

What multi-level, public structure stands behind me?

Downtown areas are only as good as the parking they offer. Just ask anyone about visiting Gettysburg, Hanover or York.

People do not want to go places where they struggle to find parking. Just ask anyone who avoids Gettysburg, Hanover or York.

A common parking-related qualm is not having the proper currency to pay for it when the situation arises.

What Adams County parking facility behind me accepts more than one form of payment?

Update Aug. 8

Parking woes are nothing new to Gettysburg. And they are not new to the Race Horse Alley Parking Garage, which stands behind the Gettysburg Hotel.

The parking garage costs 75 cents per hour, which is cheaper than street meters. The garage takes cash or card as payment methods.

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Free tours, music scheduled in Gettysburg

Love it or hate it, Gettysburg’s busy season isn’t quite over yet. Here are some free events to keep you occupied now that the bikers and re-enactors are gone.

Tours at the Shriver House Museum

Date: July 27
Time: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., tours begin every half hour
Location: 309 Baltimore Street, Gettysburg

Residents will have a chance to learn more about the lifestyles, customs and furnishings of the 1860s during a series of free tours at the Shriver House. Cake and pink lemonade will also be on-hand in honor of George Shriver, one of the house’s former occupants, who was born on July 27, 1836. Space is limited to a maximum of 20 visitors per tour. For additional information, call (717) 337-2800 or visit

Birds with a Gettysburg Address

A rare black-billed cuckoo sits on a tree branch near Sach's Bridge in this photo from June 2014. (Courtesy of Bonita A. Portzline.)

A rare black-billed cuckoo sits on a tree branch near Sach’s Bridge in this photo from June 2014. (Courtesy of Bonita A. Portzline.)

Date: Aug. 2
Time: 8:30 p.m.
Location: Gettysburg National Military Park Ampitheater, West Confederate Avenue

Gettysburg resident and South Mountain Audubon Society member Bonnie Portzline will talk about her birding experiences in and around the park during this special evening campfire program. The program includes a sampling of Portzline’s birding photos, suggestions for local birding areas and tips about nature photography. Click here for more information.

Gettysburg Rocks

Date: Aug. 8 through 10
Times: Various
Locations: Various

Dozens of bands will perform at restaurants, bars and other venues throughout Gettysburg to benefit the Four Diamonds Fund, which provides assistance to young cancer patients and their families. For more information, and a full list of bands and venues, visit Gettysburg Rocks’ website. You can also read previous coverage of Gettysburg Rock events.

Gettysburg Music Muster

The Susquehanna Travellers, pictured here, will perform at this year's Gettysburg Music Muster. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

The Susquehanna Travellers, pictured here, will perform at this year’s Gettysburg Music Muster. (Photo courtesy of the National Park Service)

Date: Aug. 15 and 16
Time: Performances start at 1 p.m. Aug. 15 and 9:40 a.m. Aug. 16
Location: Gettysburg National Military Park and surrounding locations

Civil War-inspired musicians will fill the air with song during the annual Gettysburg Music Muster. Entertainment includes instrumental performances with the fife and banjo, Victorian dance and Civil War-era ballads.  The program will begin each day at the flag pole kiosk in front of the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center and will proceed throughout the day at various locations in and around the park. Click here for more information.

If you missed some of the recent festivities in Gettysburg, read more about them here: 

Police: No complaints filed during Bike Week

Motorcyclists share tattoo tales at Bike Week

Civil War groups, business owners make the best of low turnout

Gettysburg 151: Remembering the battle

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Mapping Mark Walters: All aboard

Transportation sure has changed over the years.

Where am I this week?

Where am I this week?

While “Jetson”-like space vehicles are not zipping around like once predicted, hybrid cars, electric cars and natural gas-powered cars are emerging as viable and “greener” forms of transportation.

Commercial transportation has changed as well, with once-booming railroads and shipyards churning a little more slowly than they did in their heydays.

What Adams County transportation depot am I standing at in this week’s selfie?

Update, July 23

The New Oxford railroad depot could someday be owned by New Oxford Borough. Until then, the borough owns the building on the land while CSX Transportation owns said land.

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Creating change

UntitledJournalists cannot help but ask questions. We regularly annoy sources with incessant inquiries about seemingly pointless and insignificant details.

And while our work can be influential, seldom do significant, tangible changes occur before our very eyes. Or at least that is how it often seems.

A few weeks back, I asked a question that brought about a change in how Adams County court administrators conduct business. They no longer list in their court lists criminal charges that were dropped by prosecutors.

Click on the image above, a screenshot of May 15 pleas and criminal bench warrants in Adams County Court. Note that under two of the defendants, their final charge is numbered “E+0.” Go ahead and say it. What the heck does that mean?

I asked Kristin Rice, public defender for Adams County, who referred my question to Don Fennimore, Adams County court administrator.

As days passed with no response, I figured it was a lost cause. And that was OK, because it was not a pressing matter and really had no adverse outcome on how I did my job. But again, what the heck does it mean?

After a few weeks had gone by, I passed Fennimore on Gettysburg’s Baltimore Street near the courthouse, and he said he was working on an answer to my “E+0” question. On June 30, he emailed me this:

“Mark, a late response to your question about what “E+0” means on the court lists you receive.

“I’m glad you asked, because I was able to learn something about Microsoft Access and Excel. Our court lists are tied to a program that uses Access and Excel, and within those programs, “E+0” represents a scientific notation of numbers.  This will occur in Excel and Access when the number is too large to fit in a particular field, in our case, the number being 99999. “99999” in our program indicates a charge that was once filed but is no longer being prosecuted by the affiant/district attorney.

“Since the charge that follows “E+0” is not being pursued, thanks to your asking about this, we have programmed the software to eliminate “E+0” references from future lists so they more accurately reflect what charges are being pursued in court.”

It is not quite on par with getting the president to resign or initiating a grand jury investigation that results in criminal convictions, but it felt good to know my question brought about public change.

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Re-enactors battle alongside friends, family in Gettysburg

For many Civil War re-enactors, events like the 151st Battle of Gettysburg commemorations are a family affair. And that family includes both biological kin and friends made around the campfires after the guests go home for the night.

Take the Davis family, who first took to the fields 15 years ago after their son, Andrew, became enamored with the idea of re-enacting at age 12.

Kathleen and Patrick Davis pose for a portrait at this year's Battle of Gettysburg re-enactments. The Davis family has taken place in dozens of Civil War re-enactments in the past 15 years.

Kathleen and Patrick Davis pose for a portrait at this year’s Battle of Gettysburg re-enactments. The Davis family has taken place in dozens of Civil War re-enactments in the past 15 years.

Andrew Davis, now a 27-year-old lawyer, said the hobby has become a way for the family to avoid the iPhone, Facebooks and other distractions of the modern world.

“It’s really nice to go away and not be bothered,” he said.

When he was old enough to take part in the battles, his parents decided to join him. The family has since taken part in numerous re-enactments, from Gettysburg to Bentonville, North Carolina.

One of the things that keeps them coming back year after year is the friends they make. Re-enactments are filled with people from all walks of life, said Andrew’s mother, Kathleen Davis.

She gestured toward some of their friends at the Confederate living history village: one is a fire fighter, one is a deputy sheriff and another is a small animal veterinarian. In the real world, she is an accountant, and her husband is a retired law enforcement officer.

Another friend, Dwight Dorr, is a retired Disney worker. A seven-year veteran of the re-enactments, he said the fellowship with people like the Davis family  keep him coming back year after year.

“The fighting is fun, but to me, it’s secondary,” he said.

On the other side of the Confederate village, 21-year-old Ashley Heisey said she also appreciates the time with family and friends at the re-enactments. She attended this year’s event with her mom, Alice Shenberger; her aunt, Catherine Switzer and her aunt’s fiance, Bruce Lindsay.

Read more about Switzer and Lindsay in this story about love on the battlefields

Together, this family has years of battlefield experience and no shortage of stories to tell. There’s the time when Switzer fell down a hill and almost knocked down the flypole holding up their tent, or the time when Shenberger threw the apple she was eating because a spider was crawling on it.

They’re small stories, but they’re the kind that make for fond memories after they return to life off of the battlefield.

Like the Davis family, Heisey and her kin have plenty of friends in the village. People here, she said, are less judgmental than they are in the real world.

For example, she has no problem running to the outhouse at night in her pajamas. Whereas people in other situations might judge or tell her to get dressed, she said, her fellow re-enactors either leave her alone or gently tease her in fun.

Her aunt, Switzer, agreed that the re-enactments have a uniquely welcoming atmosphere.

“You look down here, and we’re all the same,” Switzer said, gesturing to the women in their long dresses and men in their wool jackets. “We have a chance to be who we are and enjoy ourselves.”

Switzer’s fiance, Lindsay, described the living history village as the kind of place where people can leave out their belongings overnight knowing they will still be there in the morning. Everyone, he said, has his or her own role to play in keeping the company running, and they often do so with a smile.

“We’re a unit,” he said. “And we become a family.”

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Mapping Mark Walters: 151 years later

July 3, 1863, marked the third and final day of the bloodiest battle fought on American soil.

By day’s end, smoke was still clearing the landscape that had become dotted with graves and bodies after three days of fighting.

In the inaugural video installment for Mapping Mark Walters, I take a panoramic view around what point of the Gettysburg battlefield?

Update July 7
Longstreet’s Tower overlooks the land that was the site of Pickett’s Charge, the culmination of the three-day battle. And the farm on the other side of the tower belonged the President Dwight Eisenhower. It was the only piece of land the president and his wife ever owned.
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