With hardly a murmur Octorara School directors Monday approved the school district's budget for the coming year. The $42 million plan calls for no increase in millage for Chester County taxpayers and a 1.79 mill hike in Lancaster County. These numbers have remained pretty much unchanged since the budget formulation process got under way. No jaw-dropping increases, like the serial double-digit raises of recent years, so no budget sessions crammed with complainants demanding tax relief.Despite the soft-landing, the 2008-2009 school budget still represents a five per cent increase over last year. Fortunately, for school directors and taxpayers, the increase in costs was offset on the other side of the ledger by in-house cuts and better than anticipated revenues. So with only a tweak here and there, the fiscal plan emerged after several months of discussion and no public hand-wringing, largely intact.
Nonetheless, the five per cent increase did not go unremarked by the board's trusty tax-hawk Director Bob Hume. Hume noted Monday that regardless of the budget's quiet passage, there are many folks who still can't afford their school taxes. Pointing to the hike in Lancaster County, Hume noted that some folks dismiss the possible hardship in finding an additional $200. For those struggling to make ends meet such tax increments represent a real hurdle, reiterated Hume.
Hume suggested that taxpayers who couldn't afford last year's 10-plus per cent millage hike were in no better position to pay it, and all the preceding tax increments, now built-in, in this tax year. Like many whose civic involvement began in the taxpayer association movement, Hume believes that cutting costs is the key to keeping school budget's under control. It's what to cut that has school directors, Hume included, scratching their heads.
This year, work in the cutting room was done for them long before the budget plan surfaced. You may be thinking officials engineered the tax hike hiatus so that they could take a year off from the hail of abuse typically hitting this time of year. If they did, it's understandable. They were aware that taxpayers had had enough of increases. They even prepared the ground for another this year, saying throughout much of 2008 that the annual increases were far from over.
Can there be any doubt that the ears of school officials are still ringing from the sentiments expressed at the now, almost forgotten, November "Tax Summit". A session best summed up by the observation of state legislators, that they are impotent to do anything on tax relief. And that the solution to ever-escalating tax hikes rests with those who can cut costs locally. In other words, "You are on your own, fellers!"
Yet judging by the turnout for this year's Octorara budget sessions one might think all is now hunky-dory. Where has the opposition gone? Is the answer as simple as believing that folks were bought off this year because there was no tangible blow to their checking accounts. Probably, but this is to identify a symptom rather than get at the root causes of Octorara's budgetary sickness. Of course folks are breathing a sigh of relief at this year's pass on school taxes. Why would you get all hot under the collar for what appears to be no reason?
The sad part is that the absence of anti-budget static may also reflect a deepening resignation, one reinforced like no other time than at the "Tax Summit", that nothing can be done legislatively to provide property tax relief. Kicking and screaming has its compensations but quiet is nice in the face of what is an almost certain lack of progress. There comes a point where banging one's head against the proverbial brick wall has to stop. Yes! We can take our grievances to Harrisburg. But Harrisburg tells us, it's our problem.
Does that mean the tax protests are over? Don't count on it. Expenses deferred or passed over this year are waiting for reentry next. Octorara's fiscal chickens will likely come home to roost with another whopping, double digit hike. Prompted by the pandemonium aroused by talk of millage hikes, the rhetorical feathers will fly once again. Amid the hub-hub, school officials and taxpayers will look back on this budget year as a once welcome oasis in the endless desert of tax relief politics.
Enjoy! While you still have your heads in the sand. Savor this year's tax break, before reality sets in and we realize that this year's good fortune is merely a mirage.