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Pennsy ponders gaming cash

December 28, 2004

A Pennsylvania school board is not usually where you would find a gambler, but between now and May, members from all over the state will have to place a bet on whether a share of $1 billion in slot-machine proceeds is worth the effort.

It's new money that would reduce the average homeowner's property tax bill by about $333. But, as with many good things, there are some strings attached.

If districts take the gambling money, their ability to raise property taxes higher than the rate of inflation will be curbed.

There are exceptions. According to The Associated Press, they include emergencies, rapid enrollment growth and employee pension cost increases of at least 7.5 percent.

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If those conditions aren't met, the school district must take the proposed increase to referendum.

What are the risks? As government officials in West Virginia will attest, a certain percentage of the population will vote "no" on any increase, even if there aren't enough police on the streets or if the schools are bursting at the seams.

And, as if all that weren't enough, school districts that accept the gambling money also have to raise the earned income tax by at least 0.1 percent.

This was the dilemma during the property-tax reform debate in the legislature. Legislators were very willing to cut property taxes, but the idea of raising other taxes to compensate turned them off, to say the least.

But this was the trade-off necessary to cut local school systems' dependence on school property taxes, which many feared were taxing elderly, fixed-income Pennsylvanians out of their homes.

In some jurisdictions, such as cities with a lot of renters, taking the gambling money might not make sense. It's up to local school systems to make voters aware of the options.

Citizens have a responsibility as well, to look beyond their present situations. Today's renter might be a homeowner tomorrow and an elderly homeowner 20 years from now. It would be better for citizens to consider what is good for the community, rather than only what is good for them today.

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