ST. MARYS — In a 5-2 vote, the St. Marys Area School District’s board of directors approved a tax increase for its 2018-19 budget.

An increase of a little more than 1 mill was voted in, which would increase the bill of a homeowner with an assessed value of $50,000 by about $40 annually.

The budget totals $32,009,151, a 9.1 percent increase from last year. Salaries and benefits are said to contribute to the budget’s growth, making up 69 percent of expenditures, Superintendent G. Brian Toth said.

He added that the district tried to avoid the increase by outsourcing cafeteria and substitute teacher services, and by making changes to employee healthcare options. Toth cited a relative lack of state funding as one reason for the increase.

“We receive $3,000 less per student per year compared to out socio-economic peer districts,” said Toth. While no one from the public attended the meeting to protest the increase, Toth urged anyone upset by the hike to contact Senator Joe Scarnati and State Rep. Matt Gabler.

The two nay votes came from board members Katherine Blake and Bert Sorg. Board member Bryan Chiapppelli was not present for the vote.

Sorg, who has long been a vocal opponent of raising taxes and of the “unfair treatment” of rural communities said that he voted against the budget in protest of the unfair advantages the district faces as it is largely made up of public lands for which is receives minimal financial benefit from.

“We have a lot of public lands in our district. Out of those lands they’re (the state is) taking both gas and timber and out of those lands we receive a pittance. I think that the state has done a great disservice especially in this part of Pennsylvania in not recognizing that,” Sorg said. “It nauseates me.”

When asked, Business Manager Ginger Williams reiterated that in her budget presentation she determined that if taxed at the same level as privately owned land, the public acreage have the potential, “by conservative estimates,” to generate about $3 million in tax revenue. Williams added that the district receives $150,000 in compensation from the state for that land, which has recently been increased from $125,000.

After the meeting, when asked, Blake told the Courier Express, “I voted no because it’s not fair for us to have to tax our residents because the state isn’t giving us the funding that we deserve.”

Following the meeting Toth said areas where the budget was also hit by a nine percent increase in special education costs, a line item that continues to rise year after year.

“The needs of our students are more and more every year and by law we have to address those needs,” Toth explained.

The budget will now be open for public review for at least 30 days. The board must approve a budget by June 30 at latest.

“A budget is a plan, so we need to look at our plan and refine it,” Toth said of the coming days. “We’ll look at it to see what we can do to continue to bring it down.”

The last time the district saw a tax increase was two years ago. When asked if tax increases are likely to become the norm, Toth replied, “Yes, if the state doesn’t take up their responsibility this will be the norm.”

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