ROARING SPRING - With a vote next week, the Spring Cove school board will likely approve an early budget proposal, opening the door to additional property tax increases they haven't sought in years.
The approval of a preliminary budget - presented more than three months earlier than last year's - is far from a guarantee that taxes will increase drastically, board members stressed. But by displaying an early financial plan to the public, the board leaves open a legal avenue to raise taxes far higher than they would be allowed otherwise.
"What we're trying to say here is, 'Listen, there are still a lot of unknowns right now,'" Board President James Butler said. "But the goal, of course, is that we don't want to raise taxes at that level."
Under Pennsylvania's Act 1 restrictions, school districts must keep tax hikes within a percentage limit that officials reset annually. Spring Cove's maximum increase for next year is 2.8 percent, but if the board applies for special
exceptions, the maximum rises to 6.8 percent.
To the average homeowner, those figures represent $35 and $84 in new taxes.
The proposed $23 million budget, which can be modified heavily between next week and its summer passage, represents total district spending without program cuts, Superintendent Robert Vadella said. It
doesn't directly address grade realignment and major building projects, both of which could be approved this year.
By getting an early look into the budget process, Vadella said, the public can see for itself the district's growing expenses and revenue gap.
"We just think this allows us to put the numbers in front of the public a lot earlier," he said. "These are the starting-out figures. And last year, we didn't give people the starting-out numbers until later in the year."
The board has a long way to go before spending and revenues are reconciled. According to a presentation posted on the Spring Cove website, ballooning expenses like salaries, health insurance and state pensions will cost the district an extra $1 million next year.
Even when the board considers outside funding shifts and factors in the maximum 6.8 percent tax hike, an $87,000 budget gap remains - leaving cuts as a distinct possibility.
Much could change in the coming months, board members noted. Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal, released after the district's presentation, includes some good news for schools reeling under reduced state aid. But most of Corbett's proposed help comes in the form of special-education money, and Spring Cove's overall state subsidy - which comprises roughly half of its annual budget - remains uncertain, Vadella said.
By publishing its proposed budget early, the school board leaves hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional tax revenue as a possibility. Many Spring Cove residents probably think the district will use the state exceptions to raise taxes as high as they can, Butler said, since the board hasn't pursued the option in several years.
"It just gives us a lot more flexibility down the road," he said at the Monday board meeting.
Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.