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.
Below is a sampling of their responses. Some sections have been cut for length and clarity.
Eric Eshbach, Northern York County School District
“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
“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.”
Wesley Doll, Upper Adams School District
“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.
“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.”