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Homeowners may hate them, however property taxes aren’t going anywhere … but up

It's an annual ritual: School taxes are going up. Here's why, and by how much.

Rush Elementary School teacher Justin Ellis addresses the board during the Bensalem Township School District School Board Action Meeting on June 27, 2018.
Rush Elementary School teacher Justin Ellis addresses the board during the Bensalem Township School District School Board Action Meeting on June 27, 2018.Read moreELIZABETH ROBERTSON

Michael Lee, a retiree living on a fixed income in a two-story house that Delaware County estimates is worth $125,000, pays over $3,100 in annual property taxes — three-quarters of that to the Springfield School District.

"It's getting tougher each month to pay that," said Lee, 65, who formerly worked for the U.S. Postal Service. And it just got a little tougher. The district has upped his bill by $75 after approving a 2.4 percent property-tax increase two weeks ago.

Pennsylvania's modest $100 million school-funding increase in the 2018-19 budget was hardly sufficient to stave off another round of school-tax increases that are now greeting taxpayers from Chester County horse country to the river towns along the Delaware and the Route 422 corridor.

The Coatesville Area School District raised taxes by the most of all the school districts surveyed, 5.27 percent. While hefty, the tax hike is a 3.17 percent decrease from a proposed final budget that generated blowback from the community.

School officials in the counties blame a perennial matrix of issues, including pensions, contractual and special-education costs, and assorted state and federal mandates for the fact that more than 50 school districts have levied higher tax rates by an average of $100 effective July 1 — and an average of $100 annually for the last 10 years.

Among the districts that won't be raising school taxes this time around, however, is the biggest one in the state – Philadelphia. Mayor Kenney had proposed a 4.1 percent increase, but that ran into resistance from City Council.

For Lee, who's lived in Morton for 13 years, tax hikes don't come as a shock anymore. "It happens on a regular basis," Lee said. " I'm really not surprised that the [rate] is going up."

"Sometimes, people think we're just raising taxes," Springfield School Board President Jennifer Lofland said at the budget hearing late last month. "But we're having to make cuts along the way."

To hundreds of thousands of property owners, however, tax hikes have become as unwelcome as they are predictable. While a decade-long campaign to reduce or eliminate property taxes gained new life after a constitutional amendment passed in November that allows Pennsylvania to exempt owner-occupied homes from real estate levies, for now the property tax isn't likely to go anywhere but up.

In the last decade, school property taxes in the 60-plus districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties have jumped 25 percent — in some cases better than 40 percent — outpacing inflation at a time when enrollments have been stagnant.

The percentage of property-tax bills that go toward school bills is significantly higher than it is in the nearby New Jersey counties. Some districts in Burlington, Camden, and Gloucester Counties saw robust aid increases in Gov. Murphy's first budget.

But districts in Philadelphia's collar counties long have complained about what they view as inadequate support from Harrisburg, the subject of a landmark school funding lawsuit filed against the Pennsylvania Department of Education by a group of parents, organizations, and school districts, including William Penn, in 2014.

Outgoing Upper Darby School District Superintendent Dan Nerelli warned last month that his district would go "bankrupt" in two years if it didn't receive significantly more state aid.

Upper Darby has one of the region's highest tax rates, and it just went up 2.5 percent, adding $68 for a total of $2,785 for the typical homeowner — but resident Phyllis Fields isn't blaming the district.

"The bathrooms are a mess. The faucets are falling off," she said at a public meeting last month. She said she wouldn't want to send her child to such a school, "but I live here, and I know that in order to fight this, we have to keep our schools up. We have to keep fighting Harrisburg."

A spokesman for Gov. Wolf said the governor "remains committed to achieving fair and adequate funding for education in Pennsylvania."

The elite Main Line districts have not been immune. Levies have spiked upward in the Lower Merion Area, Radnor Township, and Tredyffrin/Easttown School Districts.

In Lower Merion in the last decade, taxes have jumped 45 percent, increasing the typical homeowner's tax bill from $4,471 to $6,612. The district's taxes are the subject of a pending suit filed by a group of residents led by lawyer Arthur Wolk.

Lower Merion cites a big bump in enrollment as a reason for the hikes; the student population has swelled more than 20 percent in that period.

However, some districts that have watched enrollment decline have also been raising taxes. The Upper Dublin School District in Montgomery County, where enrollment has fallen 4 percent, has raised taxes 47.9 percent in the last 10 years.

Business administrator Brenda Jones Bray said the increases have been due in large part to the construction of a new high school, which was approved by voters, and increasing pension and salary costs.

The Centennial School District, which has raised levies 46.2 percent in the last 10 years, also identified pensions as a chief culprit. Annual pension costs have increased from $2.5 million to $19 million, said Centennial chief financial officer Christopher Berdnik.

He said the district used its increased revenue to fund several capital projects, including renovating the high school. Residents have supported the increases, according to Berdnik.

"I live in the community that I work in. I go to the grocery store and people ask me about the school district's budget," Berdnik said. "I am not embarrassed to say why the increases exist."

While reviling property taxes is a longstanding Pennsylvania tradition, some property owners are accepting the increases with equanimity.

In the Bensalem School District, for example, many residents embraced the 2.4 percent tax hike, noting that the district hadn't raised taxes for two years.

"This should have started happening a few years ago," said Bensalem elementary school teacher Justin Ellis. "It's about the kids, and what's best for the kids."

Fields, the Upper Darby resident, said she will continue to press her district's case to Harrisburg.

"You have to make people understand. We're not going to sit back and put up with this. We have to elect people that hear us," Fields said. "That's an important thing. Sometimes, they don't hear us. And when they don't hear us year after year, then maybe they're not the best person to represent us."