WILKES-BARRE — For the first time since 1999, the Wilkes-Barre Area School Board passed a final budget with no tax increase.
“I’m proud to present this,” budget committee Chairman Louis Elmy said before reading the resolution approving a spending plan totaling just under $101.9 million while keeping the tax rate at this year’s 15.522 mills. A mill is a $1 tax for every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Before the vote Business Manager Leonard Przywara gave a brief presentation, noting that bills for eligible homeowners will actually be $1 lower than the bills they got last fall. The very modest savings are the result of the law known as Act 1, which uses money from legalized gambling to lower property taxes for homeowners.
Przywara said eligible property owners will get a tax exemption of $213, $1 more than last year. Coupled with the decision to avoid a tax hike, their bills will go down by that dollar, he said.
Not that it’s likely to be noticeable. A person owning a home assessed at $100,0000 who receives the Act 1 exemption would get a bill for $1,339.
Sam Troy, a frequent critic of board spending, had criticized the board prior to the vote for an expected 1 percent tax increase that had been included in a preliminary budget passed last month. “Any increase, to me, is too much,” Troy said. After the vote, he criticized the board again, insisting, “It should have been a tax cut.”
Przywara said the district’s state-mandated payment into the teacher pension fund will rise by $1 million. But he also said 15 teachers had retired and that, assuming all of them are replaced by teachers at the lowest starting salary, the district will save about $714,000 in salary and benefits.
Przywara also said the board’s order for a 10 percent across-the-board cut in supplies saved about $100,000, and that a 33 percent reduction in the workers’ compensation insurance rate saved about $150,000.
Total spending rises from last year by about $1 million, while money coming in is expected to be $1.8 million less than that. The board opted to cover the shortfall with money from the school district’s fund balance, a reserve built up over the years by either spending less than originally budgeted or taking in more money than expected.
Przywara said the district fund balance at the start of this fiscal year last June was about $7.8 million, but about $2 million was used to cover a shortfall in this year’s budget. The district expects to finish this fiscal year at the end of this month with a fund balance of almost $5.8 million, Przywara said.
The budget was approved by a 6-2 vote, with board member Maryanne Toole absent and Christine Katsock and Lynn Evans voting against it.
Katsock questioned several places she said could still be cut, citing $10,500 budgeted for transportation in the elementary and secondary curriculum director departments. “They don’t need to be compensated for mileage; they can be compensated through federal tax deductions,” Katscok said.
She also criticized a renewal of the board contract with attorney Ray Wendolowski as solicitor at a total cost of $195,000. Katsock has been a critic of legal spending for years and routinely votes against motions to pay Wendolowski’s bills.
Katsock also voted against hiring Berkheimer Outsourcing to collect taxes. She said the company should have set up an office in the district but has not.