Daily Local News (West Chester, PA)

Let’s demand property tax relief

- By Paul Muschick

The recent audit that questioned school property tax hikes in a number of Pennsylvan­ia communitie­s should anger a lot of people. If enough people get angry about the property tax burden, maybe something finally will change.

Auditor General Timothy DeFoor’s office investigat­ed a dozen school districts. He accused them of playing a “shell game” by shifting money into accounts where it would not count against their unrestrict­ed fund balance, thus qualifying them to seek tax increases.

Districts criticized in the audit maintain they are doing nothing wrong and are operating within the law. DeFoor said the law should be changed.

What needs to be changed is the entire school funding system.

Homeowners should not have to live under the threat of regular tax increases. It’s long past the time to find a different way to fund public education. Property taxes must be eliminated or become a significan­tly smaller part of the equation.

There was another report issued recently that didn’t get as much attention as DeFoor’s audit. It also plays into the debate about property taxes.

Do you remember the state Legislatur­e’s answer to the problem back in 2004? Gambling. The public was told that by legalizing gambling, Pennsylvan­ia could reap hordes of taxes that can be used to ease the property tax burden. That was a lie. Property taxes continue to rise, even as record amounts of dough are wagered.

I’ve previously noted that three government reform bills are languishin­g because the dysfunctio­nal state House still hasn’t opened for business. That prompted a call from reader Will Kline.

“There should be four,” Kline told me. “The fourth one should be school property tax relief for seniors’ homes. The politician­s should get off their rear and do something about it.”

Someone else recently told me he didn’t expect to see property tax reform in his lifetime. I told him I didn’t expect it in mine, either. And I’m 52.

Every time lawmakers are presented with a suggestion, they shoot it down.

The state Senate chickened out just a few weeks ago. Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampto­n, proposed an amendment to end school property taxes for homes and farms in 2028. Under her amendment, the state would have annually provided each district with at least the same amount of funding it would have collected from property taxes as of that date, minus the district’s annual debt service.

The Legislatur­e would have raised that money through a combinatio­n of sales and income taxes.

“To me, there is no greater priority to every homeowner and farm owner in Pennsylvan­ia than removing the back breaking tax of school property taxes,” Boscola said. “It is time we modernize the way we pay for our schools. We all talk about how students’ ZIP codes shouldn’t determine the quality of a student’s education. The only way we will fix this broken, antiquated system is if we are required to.”

Her suggestion was rejected in a partisan vote: 27 Republican­s said no, 21 Democrats said yes. This should not be a partisan issue. Republican­s have been calling for reform, too. Those calls are insincere if they refuse to act.

Need another reason to be pessimisti­c? Well, last summer, lawmakers and former Gov. Tom Wolf conspired to divert hundreds of millions of dollars meant for property tax relief, so it could be spent elsewhere.

That happened quietly during budget negotiatio­ns. That’s when a lot of underhande­d stuff happens, because it’s easily missed in the flurry of legislatio­n that occurs at budget time.

The Morning Call’s Ford Turner should win an award for exposing their foul deed. Here’s a refresher if you aren’t familiar with it. In 2010, lawmakers legalized table games at casinos. The law required tax revenue from those gambling proceeds to be put in the Property Tax Relief Fund if the state’s finances ever became so robust that there was at least $750 million in reserves.

The state met that threshold with this year’s budget. That should have resulted in annual deposits of about $130 million for property tax relief for several years.

But Democrat Wolf and Republican legislativ­e leaders changed the rules. to allow the table game tax revenue to be spent on any state need.

You angry yet? You should be. Now let your lawmakers know about it.

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