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Palmerton eyes school tax hike

The latest budget projections in Palmerton Area School District have its board of directors considering a half-mill property tax increase for the 2018-19 school year.

A preliminary spending plan will be up for vote in two weeks with the board taking its final position in June.

During a board workshop Tuesday night, directors debated whether it could hold the line on taxes, but the consensus of the board indicated a preference toward the half-mill increase, which would cost a property owner with an average assessment of $45,000 an extra $21.

“My concern is the continued depletion of our fund balance,” board President Barry Scherer said. “I think a modest increase is in line. We don’t know yet what our fund balance is going to look like at the end of 2017-18.”

Final numbers from its auditors had Palmerton’s fund balance at over $9 million following the 2016-17 school year. Budgeted projections have the fund balance dropping down to $7.82 million after the 2017-18 school year.

“We really don’t know how that final number is going to shake out,” business manager Ryan Kish told the board on Tuesday. “That number is based off us spending 100 percent of our budgeted expenditures. The last several years, we have had favorable returns with a surplus. The general rule is we budget for a worst-case scenario.”

Teachers’ back pay

Another factor that will impact the fund balance after this fiscal year is retroactive payments to Palmerton teachers following the recent settlement of a contract that had been expired since 2016.

Kish said those payments total around $810,000.

The budget presented Tuesday showed the estimated fund balance at the end of 2018-19 at $5.86 million.

Raising taxes by a half-mill would generate an added $144,000 in revenue for the district. That wasn’t enough to sway director Charles Gildner, who said he had been looking forward to recommending no increase for 2018-19.

“We’re projecting a $1.9 million deficit, I just don’t think an extra $144,000 on the backs of our taxpayers is going to put a huge dent in that,” Gildner said. “We don’t know what we’re going to get from the state yet. We could get an increase there that gives us $144,000.”

Palmerton’s revenue, not factoring in a potential tax increase and fund balance use, for the 2018-19 budget is projected at $30.7 million, with expenditures at $32.6 million.

“I think perhaps a small increase might help us all sleep at night,” director Kathy Fallow said.

Fellow first-term board member Kate Baumgardt said it would be “fiscally irresponsible” to hold the line on taxes.

“I think we could probably do zero, but I think it is safe in any year to do a small increase just to keep everything flowing because there are so many unknowns,” she said.

Police officers

Topping the list of highlights in Palmerton’s 2018-19 budget is the addition two district-contracted police officers. Adding in supplies and a vehicle, the added positions are projected to cost a combined $190,000. The district is looking at a Safe School grant to cover some of the initial cost.

“Being covered by both Palmerton borough police and state police, we looked at going with a district police force so we could cover all of our buildings,” Superintendent Scot Engler said.

Had the district opted for a school resource officer hired through the Palmerton Borough Police Department for example, that person could not have responded to the junior high, high school or Towamensing Elementary.

If hired, the officers would likely rotate between school buildings during the day. Lehighton Area School District is looking to implement a similar police force with two officers.

“These officers would also be able to do our crisis response and ALICE training for students and staff,” Engler said. “We would also be able to use them at some of our extracurricular events for security.”

While the money is currently included in the budget, Palmerton’s school board has not made a final decision on whether the officers will be added.

“I’m not opposed to safety, I just think the cost of these officers is going to keep increasing and grants only fund these positions for a short period of time and then the district has to foot the entire bill,” Scherer said. “I’d certainly like to see what our architect has in mind to physically help secure our buildings. I think our security could definitely be tightened up in some areas.”

Security upgrades

Engler said physical changes to building security are on the horizon, though the age and configuration of some of the schools present a challenge.

Other line items in the budget for 2018-19 include a new junior high custodian position at $87,000 and a new high school life skills class with a teacher, aide and supplies at $200,000.

“The life skills class,” Engler said, “is something that hits us up front in the budget, but we start to realize those savings later by not having to go out of the district for those services.”

Marching band uniforms at $45,000 are also a part of the budget as well as a new baseball scoreboard ($5,000), high school gymnasium scoreboard ($9,000), football play clock ($8,000), and football sled ($8,000).

The district’s bus contract with George’s Transportation is also set to rise 2.5 percent for an additional $24,000.