How to avoid peo­ple be­ing taxed out of their homes

The Morning Call - - TOWN SQUARE - Mer­lyn J. Clarke is a mem­ber of the Strouds­burg Area School Board.

It is ap­par­ently be­com­ing fash­ion­able to re­fer to the school prop­erty tax as “the hated tax.” This is the tax that, in­ci­den­tally, bol­sters the value of our prop­erty, ed­u­cates the work­force that will pay for se­nior cit­i­zen ben­e­fits such as So­cial Se­cu­rity and Medi­care and in­sures an ed­u­cated pub­lic that is es­sen­tial for our demo­cratic so­ci­ety.

There’s re­ally only one thing wrong with school prop­erty taxes: they are too high. It’s in­struc­tive to con­sider why these taxes are high. The cost of pro­vid­ing uni­ver­sal ed­u­ca­tion is ex­pen­sive. It re­quires build­ings, trans­porta­tion and the ser­vices of thou­sands of pro­fes­sion­als.

But there are fac­tors that ex­ac­er­bate these ex­penses — un­nec­es­sar­ily — that are the re­sult of leg­isla­tive man­dates or failures to act. A few are worth men­tion­ing. Schools are man­dated to ad­min­is­ter stan­dard­ized ex­ams, at the cost of mil­lions of dol­lars, that are of zero ben­e­fit to ei­ther stu­dents or teach­ers. Yet state of­fi­cials in­sist on them.

There is the “school choice” craze, sup­ported by many leg­is­la­tors. School dis­tricts in Monroe County are man­dated to spend $20 million ev­ery year in tu­ition for re­dun­dant char­ter schools, whether brick-and-mor­tar or at-home cy­ber schools, be­cause some peo­ple pre­fer these schools over pub­lic schools. Tax­pay­ers must pay for this “choice” even though there isn’t a sin­gle fail­ing school in Monroe County. (For what other “pub­lic need” provider do we have choices? None.)

Ad­di­tion­ally, the State House re­cently

passed leg­is­la­tion that di­verts some $200 million away from pub­lic schools to pro­vide schol­ar­ships to pri­vate and re­li­gious schools through the Ed­u­ca­tional Im­prove­ment Tax Credit pro­gram.

Fi­nally, the Strouds­burg, East Strouds­burg and Po­cono Moun­tain school dis­tricts are un­der­funded a com­bined $40 million ev­ery year be­cause the state Leg­is­la­ture fails to dis­trib­ute ed­u­ca­tion money ac­cord­ing to its own fair fund­ing for­mula.

State Sen. Mario Scavello sug­gested in a Po­cono Record ed­i­to­rial that prop­erty tax elim­i­na­tion fails be­cause of re­gional dif­fer­ences in the per­cep­tion of the bur­den im­posed by the tax. Sen. Scavello wrote that “the fight for re­form is gen­er­ally be­tween the less-pop­u­lated, yet faster grow­ing re­gions like ours and the slower grow­ing, more pop­u­lous ur­ban ar­eas of the com­mon­wealth. Any area with a pop­u­la­tion that has re­mained sta­ble or de­clined has seen less pres­sure on the school tax. Less peo­ple means less build­ings and fewer staff needs.”

He is cor­rect. School taxes are not oner­ous in most Penn­syl­va­nia dis­tricts. But what he ne­glects to ac­knowl­edge is that much of the op­po­si­tion to school tax elim­i­na­tion is the re­sult of the ter­ri­ble flaws in the leg­is­la­tion. For in­stance, the Penn­syl­va­nia House/Se­nate Bill 76 would freeze ex­ist­ing school fund­ing in­equities in place. Monroe County would for­ever be un­der­funded by $40 million. Ad­di­tion­ally, the leg­is­la­tion would hand the state leg­is­la­ture an ad­di­tional $14 bil­lion. Only the most cred­u­lous be­lieve that all this money would then go to­ward the pub­lic schools.

Elim­i­na­tion of prop­erty taxes could stim­u­late a pop­u­la­tion in­flux of thou­sands. School dis­tricts, stripped of their own fund­ing, would have no where­withal to ac­com­mo­date an in­flux of stu­dents, since state fund­ing would be bound by an in­flex­i­ble state for­mula that makes no al­lowance for changes in stu­dent pop­u­la­tion. Monroe County ex­pe­ri­enced this in the 1990s. More­over, wealthy school dis­tricts would reap the ma­jor­ity of state money.

School taxes do need to be re­formed. Peo­ple should not be taxed out of their homes. But there are ways to tar­get spe­cific prob­lems.

Start by re­quir­ing reg­u­lar and fre­quent re­assess­ments in or­der that all taxes as­sessed are eq­ui­table and aligned with cur­rent val­ues. In­dex prop­erty taxes to in­come. Many ju­ris­dic­tions use “cir­cuit break­ers” that limit tax obli­ga­tions de­pend­ing on in­come.

There is no ra­tio­nal rea­son to ex­empt from taxes a par­tic­u­lar de­mo­graphic sim­ply be­cause of age. Not all se­nior cit­i­zens strug­gle fi­nan­cially. We (I am one) are al­ready ex­empted from state taxes on re­tire­ment and So­cial Se­cu­rity in­come.

Fi­nally the state must step up to the plate. Cur­rently, the state pro­vides an av­er­age 37% of the cost of Monroe County schools. They should be pro­vid­ing 50%, which the state could eas­ily do if the Leg­is­la­ture would cease giv­ing away the pub­lic’s nat­u­ral gas pat­ri­mony to spe­cial in­ter­ests.

MORN­ING CALL FILE PHOTO

Res­i­dents and sup­port­ers pack the state Se­nate hear­ing room in April in sup­port of Sen. David Ar­gall’s bill to elim­i­nate school prop­erty taxes and re­place them with higher in­come and sales taxes.

Mer­lyn Clarke

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