Editor's Note: The following was written by state Rep. Warren Kampf (R-157), who represents much of the Phoenixville Area.
Within hours of passing the final state budget in June, the legislature gave voters a stronger voice in determining the amount of property taxes they pay.
Before 2006, Pennsylvania was the only state in the nation that allowed school boards to raise property taxes without restriction. Act 1 of the 2006 Special Session changed that and promised greater taxpayer protection by requiring a voter referendum before school districts could raise taxes above a yearly "education inflation index."
But there was a catch. Act 1 also allowed school districts to bypass a referendum by applying for waivers to increase taxes above the index in special circumstances—circumstances that proved so vague that circumventing the referendum through exceptions became routine. In the state’s 500-plus school districts, voters were given the chance to vote on property tax increases in only 12 instances.
This is no longer the case. Along with the budget vote, the legislature agreed to limit the exceptions a school district can use when raising property taxes.
School districts can still seek waivers, but only for special education expenses, grandfathered debt, electoral debt or pension costs.
This new law strengthens taxpayers’ voices in their local communities and encourages school districts to budget more efficiently while still giving them the tools to deal with special circumstances that may arise. When special education, pensions, electoral or grandfathered debt drive up costs beyond the index, school districts can still receive waivers. Gone, however, are exceptions for “emergencies,” construction, health care, and other broad categories. This should result in more referenda or fewer tax increases above the index.
I also believe if we are going to limit a school board’s ability to raise property taxes, we must remove mandates that have been forcing their costs to skyrocket.
That’s why I have sponsored legislation to allow school districts to opt out of the prevailing wage requirements that artificially increase construction costs. If passed, this reform will help ensure that contractors on school construction projects are no longer paid wages above what they earn working on a similar job funded by the private sector. Studies estimate this could save as much as 33 percent on labor costs.
I am also working on legislation to further overhaul the public school pension system to reduce the overwhelming cost of retirement benefits borne by taxpayers across the state. By converting to a 401(k) type plan for new school district hires, we can ensure fair benefits for workers and fair treatment for taxpayers.