While Quakertown Community School Board members couldn’t remember the last time property taxes were not raised, they unanimously agreed to break a 50-year (or so) trend and pass a proposed final budget for 2020-21 with no tax increase.
“We really understand people in the community are suffering (due to the COVID-19 pandemic),” President Kaylyn Mitchell said. “A lot of kudos need to go to the administration for setting us up for success. In my opinion, COVID really just solidified us doing this because we have a pretty high rate here in Upper Bucks County of people that have had to file for unemployment.”
A final vote on the $119.5 million spending plan is expected to take place at the June 14 board meeting. The figure includes nearly $2 million from the sale of Milford Middle School and Tohickon Valley Elementary School. The current budget is $114.6 million, about 4.3% less than next year’s. Without the inclusion of the property sale, the budget’s rise is 2.6%.
Under Act 1, Pennsylvania’s property tax law, the board could have raised taxes 3%.
Finance Committee Chairman Keith Micucci said a healthy fund balance of $25 million has helped the district weather the early months of the pandemic. After next year, the fund balance is projected to drop to $17.2 million.
Micucci said the committee wanted to make it clear to the community that although the state-mandated shutdown will produce some savings, they will be minimal. Data suggests the impact will be a negative one. While the district will receive a subsidy from the free meals it is giving out, the general fund will cover the projected $230,000 loss in the Food Service Fund to cover the costs of labor and management fees. The board also agreed to suspend the district’s meal debt policy, a projected $15,000 cost, and its Pay to Play policy, another $80,000.
Through Act 13, the state legislature has ordered all school employees to be paid. In addition, Act 13 strongly encourages districts to continue to pay contractors like transportation contractors, to avoid potential losses in state and federal subsidies or potential stimulus.
In the meantime, the administration is recommending ways to reduce the deficit. They include: reducing the workforce through attrition; extending the capital projects plan; using remaining Neidig bond money to pay for capital projects; freezing travel to conferences; and reducing curriculum and other supply purchases.
“I think it’s important to understand that while we can weather the storm this year, I think there’s going to be some more tough decisions coming up,” Micucci said. “And so we just have to keep that in the forefront of our mind. And although we’re positioned now to do this, there’s going to be other financial challenges ahead and we’re just going to have to weather that together.”
Mitchell agreed. “There are unknowns about funding from the federal and state governments,” she said. “We have to be smart with every single dollar that we spend. It has to be necessary because we don’t want to be put in that position where we would ever have to cut programs.”
The district’s millage rate will remain at 168.83. That means the owner of a property assessed at $23,857, the district average, will continue to pay $4,028 in property taxes.
Directors Chris Spear and Ron Jackson said the Finance Committee had been discussing a no tax increase budget well before the pandemic took hold. “We were at least in discussions to do this beforehand,” Spear said. “Even though it’s harder to swallow, to absorb more costs, we’re still moving forward with this zero tax increase.”
“The board has been doing good things for the community for a long time and that’s one of the reasons we were able to weather this storm,” Jackson said. “We were not throwing in a zero percent tax increase because of COVID. We were heading that way from the beginning, so I think that’s important for the community to know.”
Some board members said the last no tax increase budget about a half-century ago occurred in the early 1970s. Jackson said it may be the first since the district was incorporated in the mid-1960s.
For Director David Ochmanowicz Jr., the past wasn’t of much concern. “I’m happy we can do this,” he said. “I think this brief interlude is much needed.”
Gary Weckselblatt is director of communications for Quakertown Community School District.