The Pennsylvania state legislature's attempt to institute property tax relief by asking voters whether they wanted to shift a portion of their school property taxes to an income tax went down to a crushing defeat Tuesday, with only one Philadelphia-area district approving the shift and only four voting yes statewide, according to unofficial returns.

The one area district that said yes was Bristol Borough, and that was by only one vote; the result does not count absentee ballots and could change. In almost all the districts that voted no, it wasn't close; the ratio was better than 2-1 in most cases, and in some districts it was 4-1 or more.

"We have had a thunderous victory," Tredyffrin Republican Committee Chairman John C.T. Alexander said. The proposed personal income tax there, he said, "was a bad idea. We don't need to have an overlay of another tax."

Opposition came from many school boards, several taxpayer groups, and some Republican and Democratic organizations. They contended that the new taxes would be too difficult and costly to collect, set renters against homeowners, and not provide more funding for schools. Though many retirees and some school board members favored the change, there were virtually no campaigns for passage.

The referendums, held in every Pennsylvania school district except Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Scranton (which instead will get wage tax relief), were mandated by Act 1, the state property-tax-relief legislation passed last year. Voters were asked whether they wanted a new earned-income or personal-income tax that would be used to reduce property taxes; the type and amount of the tax were to be established by each school board. In general, low-income homeowners and people working in Philadelphia, who were exempt from the tax, would benefit; renters and high-income taxpayers would pay more.

Many voters said they had not heard much about the ballot question; some said they were learning about the tax for the first time at their polling places.

"I didn't know what it was, so I voted against it," said James Lewis, a retired Lower Merion homeowner.

West Chester resident Roberta Forwood, a homeowner, said she "hadn't heard much about it and don't know if I would benefit." She voted yes, she said, because "I'm hoping I will get some money back. I'm looking out for number one."

Some wage earners who said they would pay more with the new tax in place voted no. Laureen Miller, 47, an Upper Darby homeowner, said: "For the working people, it's going to end up costing us more. Taxes are too high already. . . . I think most people are against this."

Some voters said they opposed any new tax. "Any tax increase doesn't sound like a good idea to me," said Jacqueline Bak, 43, a Media homeowner. And West Chester resident Mary Hodges, who called herself a "working senior," said: "I don't see where there is any true guarantee to the senior citizen. There are just too many 'ifs'."

Lower Merion Democratic committeewoman Eileen Kelly said both parties in the township had come out against the new tax.

"Most people I've talked to are saying no," she said. Voters are suspicious of any new tax, she added; "they don't see this as a tax shift. They see it as a tax increase in the long run."

The Coatesville Taxpayers Alliance, with about 1,850 members, some on the school board, opposed the measure, instead favoring a statewide tax to fund education. Yesterday, the alliance put red-and-yellow signs saying "Vote No - No Income Tax Increase" outside polling places throughout the district.

Leonard Crooke, 74, whose family farms in Bucks County, said he had voted against Act 1 because it would not provide "meaningful tax relief."

Even though the new tax might have alleviated some of the property-tax burden for his land, Crooke said: "I think what we are trying to do is send a message to the state legislature to get real and do something that really accomplishes something for preserving the farms. This is not enough."