Tom Corbett

Corbett’s Property Tax Reform Throws a Curve Ball to School Districts . . . Limits on Act 1 Exceptions May Cause Angst to School Boards

School vouchers, Marcellus Shale fees and transportation funding may have been temporarily sidelined in Corbett’s budget but not so for property tax reform. 

When Gov. Corbett inked the budget this week, school districts across the commonwealth collectively received a curve ball. Included in Corbett’s budget was property tax reform, which makes change to the Taxpayer Relief Act of 2006 (Act 1) that could effect future school board’s financial decisions.  

With school districts struggling with significant reduction in state spending, many used Act 1 exceptions in their budget decisions, which permit tax increases without allowing voters the right to veto. However, with Corbett’s property tax reform, the school districts will not be permitted to increase property tax above the rate of inflation without voter referendum. Corbett suggests that the property tax reform will give the power to the taxpayers to decide whether they want a property tax increase to fund a particular program.  A reduction in allowable Act 1 exceptions will force school boards to make their case to the voter for approval of a property tax increase.

Prior to the amendment, Act 1 included 13 permitted exceptions including new construction projects, debt, pension and special education costs – school boards could increase property tax using these exceptions without a voter referendum.  The Act 1 exceptions will continue to include special education spending and payments to the state pension system but no other exceptions will be permitted without voter approval.  

It is my understanding that if a school district has a building project underway, the previous Act 1 exception for construction will remain in place for the length of the project.  However, the amendment to Act 1 does not permit an exception for future constructions projects without voter approval. So where does the Act 1 reform legislation leave TESD’s planned transportation garage/storage building on Old Lancaster Ave.? Although the project is only in the initial architectural development stages, the Facilities Committee may need to rethink their plans or be prepared for voter input.  No longer qualifying for an Act 1 exception, this proposed new construction project would require a voter referendum.  In addition, because the transportation garage is not educational programming, I would suggest that voters might not show their support for a property tax increase for this type of project.

By removing so many of the Act 1 exceptions, school boards will be limited in their ability to increase property taxes without voter referendum.  On the other hand, you could say that property owners in Pennsylvania will have a more active roll in what school boards do with their money. Gaining voter support at the polls will require public convincing by school boards. Do you think that this is the way for taxpayers to receive property tax relief?  I also wonder if some school districts will opt for creative responses to the Act 1 changes, such as forming their own charter schools.

On the subject of property taxes but slightly off topic, the T/E school district tax bills arrived in the mail.  Having just read somewhere online that the average school taxes paid in Pennsylvania is $1,200 – I am struggling to see how that is possible. 

My husband and I own an investment property in Glenhardie Condominiums in Wayne — a small 1-bedroom condo.  According to the tax bill, our school taxes for the 1-bedroom condo are $1,232 — equivalent to the average school tax bill in the state. It is interesting that our 1-BR condo represents in T/E the model for the ‘average’ price of real estate across the state. So . . .  $1,200 in school taxes buys you a 1-BR condo in the T/E school district – wonder what that same $1,200 in average school property taxes buys you in other parts of the state?  A quick search online indicates that Pittsburgh is ranked as one of the ‘best buys’ in America.  For the price of a 1-BR Glenhardie condo, one could buy a nice 4-BR house in Pittsburgh! 

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Is the Answer to Pennsylvania’s Budget . . . Robbing Peter to Pay Paul?

All eyes are on Harrisburg as the clock ticks down to the June 30 state budget deadline.  Some say that to reach next week’s deadline would require a final budget in place by the end of today.  At this point, Gov. Corbett appears intent on meeting the June 30 deadline . . . that by itself will mark a change from the past administration.  I don’t recall if Ed Rendell’s budget was late all eight years of his administration but certainly most years.

There are some hurdles for Corbett’s budget before it is finalized. Some sticking points include whether the $300 million in Tobacco Settlement Fund revenue remains in the general fund as Corbett proposed in his preliminary budget.  In the past, the tobacco fund revenue was not included in the general fund but helped fund social and welfare programs.  There was a claim in March by Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Jack Wagner that over the past few years, over a $1 billion has quietly diverted from the Tobacco Settlement Fund to the general fund to help balance the state’s budget. You know the saying, ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’.

If the $300 million revenue from the Tobacco Settlement Fund were to come out of the general fund, it is possible that some of the spending cuts to basic and higher education and welfare programs could be restored.  If you recall, Corbett’s preliminary budget announcement back in March indicated excess tax revenue of $78 million but to date, he has refused to increase spending.  The state tax revenue in March and April of this year was higher than expected so it would seem to suggest that Corbett could afford to restore some of the education and welfare spending cuts.

Will Corbett’s final budget package include a Marcellus shale impact fee?  My guess . . . highly unlikely. But the real question is why is the state not charging an extraction tax or impact fee to the drilling companies?  It defies logic; I absolutely do not understand why the opposition to charging the companies– especially given the current and potential future damage to the environment and roads caused by the gas drilling.

I certainly do not claim to be any political guru; but when you look around this country and see that every other state is charging some form of a drilling tax, impact fee, or whatever you want to call it; it does beg the question, why doesn’t Pennsylvania?  Is the answer so that Corbett can stand on his campaign promise of no new tax increase?  Is the administration’s reluctance to impose a Marcellus shale fee have anything to do with campaign financing support? I wonder how much revenue the state has already lost and will continue to lose by not imposing a Marcellus shale impact fee. 

As school districts across the state are challenged to balance their own budgets and taxpayers face property tax increases – again I have to ask, why not tax the Marcellus shale drilling companies.

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Once a State Rep Campaign Debate, Could the Tolling of Rt. 422 be a ‘Model’ for Tolling Highways across the State?

 What’s the saying, ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around” . . . ? 

For most of the year 2010, voters of Tredyffrin Township had a front row seat as the ‘tolling of Rt. 422’ issue became a political football in the PA State House 157 race between incumbent State Rep Paul Drucker (D) and challenger Warren Kampf (R).  Some political insiders might even argue that Drucker’s stance on 422 tolling may have contributed to the loss of his state representative position last November.

Although a heated campaign issue, post-election the tolling of Rt. 422 has had nearly non-existent discussion.  That is until now. According to Pennsylvania Independent, an on-line news service, the 25-mile, four-lane US Route 422 will be promoted on Monday, June 6 as a potential ‘model’ for tolling highways across the state as a means to increase transportation funding. 

Gov. Corbett’s recently appointed 30-member Transportation Funding Commission will hear a presentation on how tolls would work on Rt. 422 in Montgomery, Chester and Berks counties.  The executive commission is looking at a way to generate at least $2.5 billion in annual transportation funding for infrastructure needs and the ‘tolling of 422’ may serve as the state’s model for how to do it.

According to Barry Schoch, Secretary of Transportation for Pennsylvania and chairman of the commission, “Route 422 model would allow county or municipal authorities to form a ‘local taxation authority’ and keep the revenue from tolls and local taxes dedicated for local highways”. 

Construction of a local suburban commuter rail line was one of the possible uses of 422 tolls and a means to alleviate some of the highway traffic.  If you recall, the Philadelphia-based Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission (DVRPC) created a Route 422 Corridor Master Plan and presented their findings in 2010 to local municipalities, including Tredyffrin Township.  Their plan, among other things, provided for a light rail commuter service and suggested tolling on Rt. 422 as a way of financing the project.

During 2010, the tolling of 422 provided a major talking point for the Drucker and Kampf political campaigns.  Drucker supported DVRPC and the Route 422 Corridor Master Plan, which included tolling of 422.  However, Drucker was specific that the tolling was for the commuter who was traveling the entire stretch of the highway on a regular basis, not the occasional user or those that would use it on-off. 

In response to Drucker, Kampf’s opposing position on the Route 422 Corridor Master Plan was simple.  On his campaign website, Kampf stated “My position on tolling Route 422 is clear: I oppose it.”  Remaining true to his campaign words, when asked to respond to the upcoming Transportation Funding Commission presentation to use tolling of 422 as a model for the state, Kampf said, “Tolling is another way of taxing people. . .”  He is opposed to using state and local funds to build, operate and maintain a commuter rail line that would benefit rail commuters at the expense of others. 

Like much of the country, many of Pennsylvania’s roads and bridges are in crisis; desperately in need of repairs. Although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree on the infrastructure needs, they may not be as unified in the funding solutions.  No one has a crystal ball, but we now see evidence from Corbett’s Transportation Funding Commission that supports Drucker’s vision for the future . . . a suburban commuter rail line and the use of tolls to finance  infrastructure improvements.

Some could argue that State Rep Kampf battled former State Rep Drucker successfully on the 422 tolling issue, but it looks like Kampf could face a far greater challenge in Harrisburg . . . and,  from both sides.

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T/E Teachers Union Offers Salary Freeze . . . TESD Rejects Offer, Wants Pay Increase Waiver

Tredyffrin Easttown School District is struggling with the budget crisis much as other school districts across the state and the country.  Serious budget issues escalated last month with Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget, which contained massive cuts to public education funding. 

School districts nationwide are looking for ways to balance their budgets in the face of looming deficits. Often budget discussions focus on teacher unions, which quickly turn into a debate about whether they have given too much or not enough at a time when school dollars are scarce.  There are those that vilify teacher unions as the cause of escalating school district budgets, claiming that their pensions, health care coverage and guaranteed salary raises have increased the property taxes of those who pay the teacher salaries.  Counter to this attitude are public school teachers and their supporters who claim that politicians are looking to balance budgets on their backs.

School districts and the teachers unions are vying to make their individual cases to the public.  As budget discussions become more heated, often times the divide increases between the two sides. School district officials are looking to balance their budgets and teacher union leaders struggle to protect the rights of their workers. There are always two sides to a story but there is a very important third party, whose rights are often overlooked in the debate . . . the taxpayer.

“ . . . It is well understood that this school district [TESD] like so many in this country is facing a financial crisis.  It would appear that this is the time for all of us to work together instead of against each other.  As a good first step, I would propose that the information disseminated be supported.  Unfortunately, when situations reach a crisis level within an organization (whether it is the school district, local government, corporations, etc) rumor mills explode and before you know it, things are out of control.”  Community Matters, January 18, 2010

I wrote these words 15 months ago in the post, ‘Is the Teacher Union aiding in the Fact vs. Fiction Component of the TESD Budget Crisis” and they are just as important today.

I believe in the value of transparency and availability of information from government to the public.  To understand a situation and to make an informed decision requires knowing the truth.  As I said in January 2010, “. . . when situations reach a crisis level . . . rumor mills explode and before you know it, things are out of control.”  Nothing could be closer to the truth. 

Residents in the T/E School District were told by the T/E School Board that letters (dated April 6, 2011) had gone to the two district unions, Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association, TEEA the teachers union and Tredyffrin Easttown Non-Instructional Group, TENIG.  According to the school board, the letters could not be made public for legal reasons. It is my understanding that the school board letters contained a request to both unions for a pay increase waiver for next year.  If you recall, Gov. Corbett had suggested that teachers unions in Pennsylvania encourage their members to take a salary ‘freeze’ for next year to help their budget shortfalls. Several residents have contacted me and some have spoken up at the school board meetings to ask about the TESD letters, and if there has been a response from either union.  With hands apparently tied legally, our school board was not able to provide much detail.  I was told last week that members of TENIG were considering some kind of ‘give-back’ offer to the district and were to vote yesterday on their offer.

Until earlier this week, I assumed that the teachers union was not considering any type of ‘give-back’ offer or concession. My impression from attending district budget, finance and school board meetings was certainly that no response (or offer) had been received by the district.  During the course of this week however, I have had phone calls and emails from numerous sources suggesting that a salary freeze offer was made to the T/E School Board but that the offer was rejected.  To clarify, these sources of information were not TEEA union leadership. 

Clearly confused but believing in the publics ‘right to know’, yesterday I contacted via email the members of the TESD school board and Pete DePiano, TEEA union president. The following email was sent to the School Board and DePiano asking for clarification:

Dear __________

I am in receipt of information that indicates, among other things, that there was an offer made from Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association teachers union for salary freezes for next year, in advance of the negotiations for the next contract.  According to several sources, the TESD school board rejected the teacher union’s salary freeze offer, citing that such an offer would only be acceptable if the current teacher’s contract were opened and renegotiated. 

I am working on an article on this topic and I am affording you the opportunity to comment on this matter.  If you wish to comment, I will need the information within 24 hours, by 10 AM Friday, April 29, 2011. 

Kind regards,
Pattye Benson

From the President of TEEA, I received the following email response:

On April 15, 2011, TEEA formally offered a salary schedule pay freeze to the T/E Board of School Directors.  The Board formally has responded to TEEA that they cannot accept the offer.  As the T/E School District prepares to finalize its budget for 2011-12, TEEA will continue to work diligently with its members behind the scenes to attempt to reach another cost savings offer.

Pete DePiano
TEEA President

In response to my request, I received the following response from T/E School Board President Karen Cruickshank:

Dear Pattye:

Many thanks for contacting the T/E School Board about a teacher offer in T/E.  As you know we are in a significant budget crisis, and have asked both of our unions in a sense of shared sacrifice to participate in a pay waiver.  At our Monday night Finance meeting we will provide a detailed presentation about why we can not accept a pay freeze but would welcome a pay waiver.  I would encourage you to attend the meeting so that you can see the entire presentation and ask any questions that you have of the board.

Many thanks for your commitment to providing information to our community. 

Most sincerely,
Karen Cruickshank
T/E School Board President

Karen Cruickshank sent a follow-up email:

Dear Pattye:

In regards to your request for information about union offers in the T/E School District, the TESD School Board does not negotiate in public.  We continue to remain in close communications with both of our unions.  

As I did say in my earlier e-mail there is confusion over the difference between a pay waiver and a pay freeze, and we will clearly point out the financial differences between them at our Monday night Finance Committee meeting.  The Board as always will be most happy to take questions from the community at the meeting.

Most sincerely,
Karen Cruickshank
T/E School Board President

Although we learn from these responses that there was an ‘offer’ from the teachers union and a ‘rejection’ from the school district, what did the offer letter and the rejection letter actually say . . . ? It is obvious there is confusion between a salary ‘freeze’ and a salary ‘waiver’ and it is noted from both of Cruikshank’s responses, that the school board intends to clarify those distinctions at TESD’s upcoming Finance Committee meeting on Monday night.

I did not receive copies of either the TEEA letter to T/E School Board or the letter from the T/E School Board to TEEA.  However, with a bit of research online I was able to track down both letters.  The letters are available online (and therefore public) and can be found at www.teeacher.org .

In addition to the TEEA and TESD letters, there is a note to the teachers from DePiano:

To all TEEA members:

Below are two letters. The first, dated April 15, 2011, is TEEA’s response to the TE School Board’s request that we waive the fourth year of our contract. It consists of a refusal to waive the contract and an offer to freeze the contract for one year and extend it.

The second, dated April 27, 2011, is the District’s response, a refusal to consider any agreement that involves extending our contract.

To clarify: A waiver would cancel the fourth year of our collectively bargained contract and put us into immediate negotiations for a new agreement. A freeze is essentially a one-year pause. We would work in 2011-2012 under the same provisions we have this year. We would then realize the negotiated final year of our contract in 2012-2013.

Yours in solidarity,

Pete DePiano, President TEEA

You will note that the TEEA offer letter dated April 15, 2011 to TESD states in part,

“ . . . In an attempt to prevent more painful cuts from having to occur (including program cuts, increases in class size, or an outsourcing of the custodial staff) yet also honor the contract that was negotiated in good faith, the Representative Council of TEEA has authorized a salary freeze proposal for the Board’s consideration.  This includes a salary step freeze for 2011-12 based on the current 2010-11 salary schedule, with the final year of the originally bargained contract realized in 2012-13, including step movement and salaries.  It provides PSERs clemency to staff that will be retiring next year, and maintains status quo on all other provisions of the collective bargaining agreement. . . . I estimate this proposal will generate over $2.5 million in savings for FY 2011-12. . . “

The T/E School District response of April 27, 2011 rejected the TEEA offer stating that their letter of April 6, 2011 called upon the unions to accept a

“. . . one-year pay increase waiver as their contribution to the shared sacrifice to support T/E students.  After June 30, 2011, a waiver indicates that there will be no movement vertically or horizontally on the matrix for the 2011-12 school year.  The settlement of the new bargaining agreement effective July 1, 2012 will direct the placement of staff on the salary matrix for future years.  A one-year pay increase waiver would waive contract raises for the two unions’ employees for the 2011-12 school year and would result in a cost savings of approximately $3,000,000. . . “

Again, as I said more than a year ago, “rumor mills explode” and there is only one way to correct misinformation and that is with the facts. 

The budget crisis facing the school district and our community should not be about ‘picking sides’ . . . it should be about providing transparency, factual information and letting the public draw their own conclusions.

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A Sign of the Times . . . Corbett’s De-Funding Public Education Plays Out in Teacher Contracts, School Vouchers, Education Rallies . . . What is the Future of Public Education in Pennsylvania?

Gov. Corbett’s plan to de-fund public education in Pennsylvania in his proposed $1.2 billion funding cuts is becoming the backdrop for school district budget discussion statewide. Corbett’s education-funding proposal has left many communities wondering how they are going to make up their budget deficits and are looking to the teachers and non-instructional workers for help.

This week in Unionville-Chadds Ford School District, the teacher contracts appear to have stalled with both sides remaining at odds. If you recall, the teachers have been working under the conditions of the old contract, which expired last summer. Unionville-Chadds Ford School District is struggling with their budget and how to handle the $1.1 million reduction in state spending contained in Corbett’s proposed budget. The non-instructional district support staff agreed to a salary freeze but at this time, the teachers have not.

In Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, the school board sent letters to Tredyffrin Easttown Education Association (TEEA) and Tredyffrin Easttown Non Instructional Group (TENIG) unions asking the members to consider a salary freeze for next year.  Although I do not believe there has been an official response from either union, it is my understanding that TENIG will meet tomorrow (Thursday) for discussion and a vote on a salary freeze.  TEEA members will hold further discussions next week but I do not know if salary freeze is part of the discussion. 

In recent days, there have been many rallies around the state in support of public education. “Cut Corbett Not Schools” signs are seen all over Harrisburg – demanding that the legislature restore the $1.1 billion in education funding. There is a continued push by many to create a state-funded school voucher program (SB 1). Currently the proposed voucher legislation is stalled in the Senate; I think primarily due to the perceived cost of implementation.  The heated discussion of a state-mandated school voucher program continues to widen the divide between the teacher unions and the school choice advocates, who believe that vouchers are the answer to failing public schools.

The bitter debate raging in the state over Corbett’s proposed public education budget cuts has taken a toll on his approval ratings.  Less than four months in the governor’s mansion and today the Quinnipiac University polling is showing a big jump in disapproval for Corbett.  The polling indicated that 52% of Pennsylvania voters disapprove of the way Corbett is handling the state budget and 64% oppose his budget cutting of state and state-related universities.  (To read the April 27 Quinnipiac University poll, click here).

Aside from public approval ratings, what will Corbett’s proposed budget cuts mean for the future of public education? What lies ahead for school districts and our children across Pennsylvania . . . the elimination of art and music, language classes, increase in class sizes, scaling back full-time kindergarten to half-day, cuts to athletic programs? These are budget cuts that will require many school districts to impose higher property taxes, lay-off staff or impose pay-for-play requirements. Pennsylvania has become a battleground for public education funding . . . what does this say for the future of our children’s education?

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A reminder that tonight at 7 PM, State Senator Andy Dinniman will hold an education rally on the steps of the Chester County Courthouse (corner of High and Market Streets) in West Chester.

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T/E School District Finance Meeting Updates . . . 2011-12 School District Budget Problem is the ‘Tip of the Iceberg’

Last night was the Finance Committee meeting and continued the discussion from the Budget Workshop held last month.  The administration and the school board members focused on the budget strategies available to fill the remaining $3.3 million shortfall.

If you recall, originally the remaining school district 2011-12 budget deficit was $2 million.  However, because of Gov. Corbett’s proposed budget and cuts to public education, an additional $1.3 million in state funding was lost to the district and therefore was added back into the TESD budget shortfall.

How to fund the $3.3 million deficit was the focus of the Finance Committee meeting. Members of the Finance Committee support and encourage a pay waiver freeze for next year.  Hoping for an understanding of shared sacrifice, the school board recently mailed letters to TEEA and TENIG unions seeking their support.

Outsourcing of custodial services remains an open issue for further discussion; it appears that the updated cost-savings on out-sourcing of those services is approximately $800K annually.  There was discussion of pay-to-play or ‘activities fee’ to be charged to students playing sports.  This would be a yearly fee for student athletics, regardless if they played 1 or more sports. If a $50 fee per student athlete is charged, the revenue generated is approximately $80K. In reviewing other area school districts, five districts in Chester County have some type of sports activities fee in place. How much is the school district budget for sports?  $1.5 million annually; which breaks down to approximately $509 per student who plays sports (including club sports).

Here is an open question . . . does sports activities fee impact participation.   The discussion of an activities fee for sports brought up an interesting discussion. Is it fair to only charge for sports, what about other extra-curricular activities, clubs, band, etc.?  Some members of the Finance Committee suggested that the activities fee should be associated with those extra-curricular activities that required transportation.

Another way to generate revenue for the school district is advertising and members of the Finance Committee are investigating the concept of paid advertising on Teamer Field, as well as other locations.  Two adverting companies that handle this type of school district advertising will make a presentation at the next school board meeting.  Generated revenue from this type of advertising was estimated as $30K-95K.  Advertising on the sports team shirts was also discussed, as well as school bus advertising.  If the district decides to move forward with the adverting concept, there will need to be a policy change.

FLITE is working to raise $85K to fund the after-school homework club.  The homework program is included in the 2011-12 budget but is on the list as a possible budget expense reduction.  Another expense reduction item under consideration is transportation for some extra-curricular activities ($90K) and summer school ($40K).

Several parents spoke in support of maintaining the quality of education and programming in the district.  Many suggested raising property taxes or instituting an EIT to cover the school district budget deficit.  If instituted, an 1% EIT would generate approximately $17 million annually.  With the township and school district equally sharing those funds, $8.5 million would go to each.

The argument by some in support of an EIT or property tax increase was that your property values are directly tied to the quality of the school district. Therefore, if you want to sustain your property values, you must support the quality of the school district.

What was clear from the Finance Committee meeting is that the administration and school board are running out of options!  They encouraged those in the audience and watching from home to contact your state representatives and Harrisburg.

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How Can PA Legislature Increase their Payroll by 22%, Cut Healthcare & Public Education Funding & Sit on $189 Million Reserve . . . Because they can!

Although much of the state’s government has fallen victim to Gov. Tom Corbett’s ax swinging proposed budget, there does appear to be one area that is seemingly ‘hands-off’ to receive any significant cuts . . . the legislature’s payroll!

On one side of his budget-cutting measures, Corbett suggests that public workers take 4% salary cuts but on the other side, we learn that since 2005 the General Assembly’s payroll has grown at almost double the rate of inflation.  During this period, the legislature’s payroll has soared 22% to $119.5 million. Now, remember during the same time that Harrisburg salaries are climbing . . . the state (and the country!) is feeling the effects of the recession and that Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 8.8 percent in the first quarter of 2011. 

What is wrong with this picture? Pennsylvanians are out-of-work and the payroll is ever-increasing in Harrisburg. Here is an interesting statistic . . . legislative staffers with salaries over $100,000/yr. rose from 36 in 2005 to 69 in 2011.  The highest paid member of Corbett’s staff is the executive director of the House Appropriations Committee, Edward Nolan, who makes $192K/yr.  Corbett’s salary is $14K less; $178,000/yr.

Where is the oversight for legislature salaries?  Did you know that Pennsylvania’s General Assembly is the largest full-time legislature in the country – and comes with a $300 million annual price tag?  There are 253 state legislators; each has a base salary of $79,646 and automatic cost of living increases.  The General Assembly employs 2,650 staff members, which makes Pennsylvania one of the largest government employers in the nation.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, www.pittsburghlive.com conducted an interesting 6-year comparison of legislative staff and salaries from 2005 – 2011 with surprising results.  Their review found:

  • The number of House employees grew from 1,714 to 1,812, and payroll increased by $17.3 million from $59.4 million to $76.7 million.
  • The House payroll includes “lounge attendant” Lynn Bias, paid $37,300 annually for duties that include cutting members’ hair. In a “Members Only” room, Bias “takes care of members’ needs and grooming” because they are away from home for long periods and make public appearances.
  • Though the number of Senate employees declined from 905 to 835, the payroll grew $4 million to $42.7 million this year. The Senate pays staffers Robert Nagle and Chris Miller $37,384 and $45,888, respectively, to cook meals and clean the room where members dine at their own cost on Senate session days. The employees have other duties on non-session days, such as moving furniture, cleaning carpets, changing light bulbs, sweeping high ceilings and chandeliers for cobwebs, running errands and delivering ice to Senate offices.
  • Pennsylvania was the only large state with legislative staff growth — 8 percent — from 1996 through 2009. Ohio, New York, Michigan, Florida, Texas and California reduced staffs from 1 percent to 31 percent.

It appears there is a double standard in Harrisburg.  The legislature salaries continue to rise; the number of staff members in Pennsylvania is one of the highest in the country, yet the proposed state budget targets health care, public education and the lowest-earning public workers.  Again, I ask what is wrong with this picture.  How does ‘fairness’ factor in . . . what about everyone ‘feeling the pain’?  Why are some exempt from the pain; is this a case of it’s ‘who you know’ in Harrisburg?

This brings me to more questions. With the looming $4 billion deficit in the state budget, why is that the legislature is sitting on a $189 million reserve? Why can’t some of that money go towards the mega-billion dollar deficit?  Why not transfer some of this money into the General Fund?  This $189 million surplus is taxpayer’s money – so why not take some of this money and help the people in the state that need it.  What makes this situation any different from a school district dipping into their fund balance to help with their budget deficit? 

Someone will need to explain to me why the legislature needs to keep a reserve cushion of $189 million yet the proposed budget calls for state funding for higher education to be cut in half.  I do not understand how this equates.

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United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail . . . Sen. Andy Dinniman Joins the Student’s Voices

PA Students' VoiceUnited We Stand, Underfunded We Fail . . . they are the collective voice of the students of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

A firestorm is raging on college campuses across Pennsylvania. College students feel the pain as Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposed budget calls for state funding to state-owned universities to be slashed nearly in half.  The 14 colleges and universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education will see their funding reduced from $444 million to $232 million if Corbett’s proposed budget passes. If Pennsylvania cuts education funding, the students lose.  With tuition hikes as high as $2,200 per year if Corbett’s cuts stand, plus cuts to financial aid, many students say they will not be able to attend school next fall.

Representing themselves as the ‘voices of the future’, the students are organizing protest rallies on college campuses across the state.  Using social media tools, Twitter, Facebook, website, www.pastudentsvoice.org the students are hoping that their message reaches Corbett. 

Locally, this past week, State Senator Andy Dinniman attended and spoke at PA Students Voice rally at West Chester University and made a commitment to stand with the students and professors, in opposition of the higher education budget cuts proposed by Corbett.

In his latest press release, Dinniman said, “Governor Corbett’s cuts mean increased tuition and fees, fewer classes, greater student borrowing and debt and more people on the unemployment rolls. By slashing support for higher education by more than 50 percent, we’re effectively undermining our potential for long-term growth in challenging economic times. Without a doubt, the governor’s proposed cuts would be devastating to West Chester University and the 13 other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education colleges and universities,” Dinniman said. “For a West Chester student, tuition and fees could jump by $2,100 from around $7,600 to $9,700 a year.”

A former college professor, Dinniman believes in public education.  Hosting a rally on the courthouse steps on Wednesday, April 20, at 7 PM, Sen. Dinniman encourages students and their families, professors, university employees and all who care about public education to join him and voice their opposition to the proposed funding cuts. 

An elected official who is listening to the community and standing with them . . . how refreshing!  United We Stand, Underfunded We Fail!

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Corbett Calls for 4% Pay Cut for State Workers as Dark Shadow of Government Shutdown Hangs Over Capital Hill

Teachers in Pennsylvania may be the envy of the state’s public workers.  Teachers unions were asked to consider a one-year pay freeze, but many state workers may not be so lucky. In fact, a pay freeze looks charitable when compared to the sacrifice asked of state workers in Pennsylvania’s largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

To help close the $4.2 billion budget deficit, Gov. Tom Corbett wants the 45,000 public employees to help by absorbing a 4 percent pay cut in the first year of a new three-year contract.  Corbett’s administration suggests that the workers would be made ‘whole’ again within two years. AFSCME’s agreement usually provides the guidepost for pacts with other unions.  Contracts with AFSCME and 16 other state employee unions will expire on June 30.

Some of the lowest-paid workers in the state, AFSCME workers are paid about $34,000 a year on average.  The state custodians, nursing assistants, clerical workers and snowplow drivers would see their salary drop to $32,640 under Corbett’s plan. It is anticipated that the AMFSCME pay decrease would save the state more than $60 million. If my math is correct, the cost savings from the 4 percent pay cut would equate to approximately 1.5 percent of the state budget deficit or $6 million. 

Many of the public workers are already living paycheck-to-paycheck.  Question, is it fair to ask for this level of sacrifice from those already struggling to get by? AFSCME workers offered Corbett their willingness to take a salary freeze for one year but the Governor rejected their offer.  After all, isn’t this what Corbett had proposed for the state’s teachers?

In Corbett’s budget address last month, he warned that he would be seeking concessions from public workers.  His words spoke of the painful steps that would be required to close the budget gap but I don’t know that the state workers were prepared for the level of pain they may be forced to feel!

I certainly support the notion that these difficult economic times require all of us to sacrifice, but . . . . I also have to wonder if lawmakers and top-level state managers will be asked to share the same level of pain as the public workers. I have not heard mention of suggested pay cuts for our elected officials.

As I complete this post, there is a dark shadow hanging over Capital Hill as the federal government shutdown clock continues to tick down.  Washington is scrambling as the clock counts down.  Failure to reach a deal for the remaining six months of the fiscal year would trigger a government shutdown at midnight tonight, causing more than 800,000 nonessential employees to be furloughed without pay. It is interesting to note that our nations lawmakers would continue to receive their paycheck!

Here’s hoping for a last-minute agreement; a government shutdown is in no one’s best interest!

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The Money is Running Out for Some Pennsylvania School Districts . . . Can they keep their doors open?

One school district in crisis . . . can others be far behind?

The Duquesne School District is located in Allegheny County, a suburb of Pittsburgh.  A former steel mill town, Duquesne is no newcomer to hard times.  The last couple of decades the population in this cash-strapped community has steadily declined.

In the age of Big Steel, towns like Duquesne, Pennsylvania were the backbone of America’s industrial might . . . a beacon for thousands of immigrants looking for a better life. But that was then . . . this is now. Once a booming steel mill town, Duquesne began its downward economic spiral in 1985 with the closure of a U.S. Steel facility. The largest employer in town, U.S. Steel provided a steady tax base and, more importantly, jobs for the hundreds of kids coming out of Duquesne High School each year. The plant closed and with its closure, so went the jobs. Unemployment figures soared, economic decline began and hope for the future has slowly disappeared.

In 2007, Duquesne’s only high school was forced to close . . . the school district can only afford to educate its young people in grades kindergarten through 8th grade.  If you want a high school education, you must go to anther school district. The state declared the district financially distressed in 2000.

Fast forward to 2011 and Corbett’s proposed massive public education funding cuts; what does it mean for the future of Duquesne and its children?  U.S. Steel decided it was no longer profitable to keep its doors open in Duquesne but the school district does not have that option.  For the record, currently Duquesne School District relies on $11 million of its $14 million budget from state funding. Corbett’s proposed budget will mean a loss of $2,000 in state funding per student in the Duquesne School District where more than half of the students are from low-income families.  Raising property taxes in this cash-strapped district is not an option.

Declining tax bases in some areas of the state are forcing those school districts to the edge. As other school districts across Pennsylvania struggle to keep foreign languages and the arts in their curriculum, Duquesne School District fights just to keep their doors open.  The Duquesne School District’s proposed ‘bare bones’ budget for 2011-12 includes the elimination of 35 teaching jobs, freezing salaries and increasing class sizes to 23-to-26 students per class.  Their pared down program includes no academic coaches, no tutoring, no field trips, no sports teams or no extra-curricular activities. Is this skeleton programming a sufficient education?

If there is no change to the proposed state budget cuts to public education, Duquesne School District may have to close its remaining school doors. Duquesne School District is but an example of a Pennsylvania school district on the brink of complete failure.  But it does beg the question, can others be far behind?  

It is important to look beyond our own backyard as we focus on the finances of our own school district and its budget deficit.

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