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Bermudian says “no” to new taxes

By Imari Scarbrough

The Bermudian Springs school board will not include any tax increases in its Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget following a close vote on Tuesday evening.

The board discussed the pros and cons of including a tax increase in the budget, with concerns ranging from the problems of raising prices for residents on fixed income to worries that school programs will be cut if taxes are not raised.

There were three options on the table: raising taxes 4.7% to the Act 1 index, with the real estate tax set at 13.0514 mills, setting the real estate tax rate at 12.7585 mills, or leaving the rate at 12.4656 mills.

The third option with no tax increase passed with a narrow 5-4 vote after motions for the first two choices were defeated.

Matthew P. Nelson, vice president of the board, argued in favor of raising taxes to the Act 1 index.

“Oftentimes, taxes can be viewed as a burden, and oftentimes they can be,” Nelson said. “But I also think, when you have your property taxes, the school taxes that end up going to Bermudian are an investment. So it’s not a burden. That money’s going to be used and you can see directly the results. You see it on the stage. You see it in the stadium. You see it in the classrooms.”

Others on the board worried that inflation would make a tax increase too hard on taxpayers. Nelson argued that inflation would increase the district’s financial needs.

“The school district is not immune to those same exact pressures and problems that all of our families are going to have,” Nelson said.

Treasurer Ruth Griffie, Mary Kemper, the board’s assistant secretary, and board members Daniel S. Chubb, Jennifer Goldhahn and Travis Mathna all voted against option one, defeating it 5-4.

The same five members voted against the lower tax increase, defeating that motion 5-4.

When the time came to vote for the third option with no tax increase, Michael Wool, the board’s president, said no business could function like school boards are expected to.

“The way that the school funding model is set up in Pennsylvania is we are like at the end of the line,” Wool, who voted for raising taxes, said. “Whatever is left, we have to figure out how to address it. And as we talked about last night, the fact that I – or we – have to approve a budget before the state approves has to approve theirs to tell us what their contribution is is ridiculous. If any business tried to operate that way, they would fail miserably.”

Wool also reminded everyone that all board members made their decisions with the students in mind, including both those who voted for and those who voted against raising taxes.

“The other thing that I really want to point out, and this really is not so much to do with this particular motion, is that every person up here, regardless of their stance, is really all about doing what’s best for our kids and our community,” Wool said. “And I, you know, we’ve had some passionate debate and conversation. I know sometimes there are, I know, one-on-one conversations that can get very interesting. But I do appreciate that this board. That’s what they care about. Nobody is up here on an agenda.”

Griffie, who voted against both proposed tax increases, said she has served on the board for six and a half years and for two terms. She shared her frustration with the calls to raise taxes.

“My first year, and I will never forget this, in 1999, I came onto the board and I said I did not want to raise taxes because I would like to see my friends and my neighbors take a vacation,” Griffie said. “This one board member said to me, ‘But Ruth, if they take a vacation this year, they might not have money to pay their taxes next year.’ I said, ‘Oh, well. Next year will be next year.’ I just wanted to add that. That’s stuck with me since 1999. I have been trying to hold the line on taxes.”

The same five board members who voted against the first two motions voted in favor of the third one, defeating Wool, Nelson, Secretary Douglas L. Knight and board member Corey A. Trostle with a close 5-4 vote.

The board held two separate votes for the third option. The first set expenditures at $34,321,825 and revenues at $31,932,116. The second vote determined the taxes, which will not be increased. Board members voted the same way for both votes held for the third option.

Rather than raising taxes, the district will use its fund balance to close the gap, leaving $3,243,658 left, according to the final budget.

Last year, the board also voted to not impose a tax increase.

Concerns from the public

Before the budget vote was held, speakers from the community used the time for public comment to advocate for both positions.

One man said he’s seen families unable to afford food.

“To be raising taxes in a time of record inflation is directly going to hurt the people who are poorest,” he said.

He felt the board should reduce rather than raise taxes.

“The compassionate, loving thing to do to love your neighbor, the neighbors who elected you here, would be to cut taxes hard,” he said. “If you cannot cut taxes hard– you don’t have the votes for it because some just want to continuously raise taxes to pay for every little magic dream you have – if you can’t do that, then the compromise position is to hold the line at zero.”

Another man urged the board to examine all of its expenses before raising taxes.

“I can’t see how anyone in good conscience right now, knowing what’s going on in the economy, could say that a tax increase is good at this time,” he said.

One woman commented on the offers the board received from some speakers who offered to help raise the necessary funds or find other ways to close the gaps without a tax increase. She questioned why many did not show up for other meetings or fundraising efforts until now. She also said the entire community benefits from the school educating students and keeping them busy even if some taxpayers do not have children enrolled in the district.

Some people worried programs will eventually be cut and classrooms will be overcrowded without the extra funding.

“Please make the hard decision,” one speaker said as he urged the board to raise taxes. “It may not be the popular one, but it is the one that is necessary.”

The board unanimously agreed to not raise cafeteria breakfast or lunch prices for the 2022-23 school year.

Other business

The board approved hiring Brian Booher as the new special education director.

Booher will fill the role left open following the resignation of Sonja Brunner.

The board will hold its next caucus meeting on Aug. 8 and its next regular meeting on Aug. 9.

Both meetings are scheduled to begin at 7 p.m.  Meetings are held in the high school auditorium and are livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.

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Imari Scarbrough is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.

You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.

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