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Pa. property owners footing bigger bill in '04

December 18, 2003|by DON AINES

chambersburg@herald-mail.com

Of the 18 municipalities in Franklin County, Pa., with real estate taxes, just three have approved or plan to approve real estate tax increases in 2004, local government officials said.

Waynesboro, Pa., and Washington Township, Pa., are both increasing their property taxes by 2 mills, while Chambersburg property owners will see taxes go up for the first time in 15 years. The Franklin County Board of Commissioners last week also unveiled a 2004 budget with a 2-mill increase.

Another 14 townships and boroughs are holding the line on real estate taxes in 2004 while four others - Greene, Guilford, Metal and St. Thomas townships - do not have real estate taxes.

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Each mill represents $1 for every $1,000 in assessed value on a property.

For the four governments raising taxes there are some common threads.

"Health care, police and fire contracts," said Waynesboro Borough Manager Lloyd Hamberger. "The cost of employees keeps going up."

The Waynesboro Borough Council approved its 2004 budget Wednesday night.

Chambersburg Borough Manager Eric Oyer also cited a hefty increase in health-care insurance premiums as a reason for proposing a 4.8-mill increase to 17 mills. The borough council gave final approval to the tax hike Dec. 9.

The county cited a $430,000 increase in health-care costs as one reason for its increase. There were also steep increases in court and prison costs, expenditures that are controlled more by the county's crime rate than by economic factors.

Another reason for Waynesboro's increase is relatively flat growth in real estate tax revenues, Hamberger said.

"The borough real estate tax base, unlike the wage tax, is not indexed to inflation," he said. When people get raises or cost-of-living increases, the earned income tax revenue of a borough or township increases, but a property may not increase in value and many commercial and industrial properties depreciate in value over the years.

Despite new construction totaling nearly $50 million in Chambersburg between 2001 and 2003, real estate revenues have barely budged from $1.8 million in 2001 and are expected to be about the same in 2004, according to borough figures.

Boroughs are also essentially landlocked, with limited amounts of open space for new development within their borders, Hamberger said.

Mercersburg Borough Councilman Roger Defibaugh said there is a new development starting in that town, "and we're hoping to get some revenues from that." Higher than expected revenues from all sources this year helped keep the town's taxes at 12.5 mills, he said.

"The primary reason is, since the governor hasn't provided a gas tax increase, the supervisors decided they didn't want to wait any more for a road overlay program," Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher said of the township's tax increase. At least one mill of the increase will be dedicated to improving all the township roads over the next decade, he said.

Christopher also cited rising health-care costs as another reason for the increase.

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