Elk Lake move opens likelihood of tax increase

The Elk Lake School Board approved a preliminary 2017-2018 budget last Tuesday (Feb. 14) that will likely see Susquehanna County property taxes increase 4.98 percent and Wyoming County property taxes increase 3.62 percent.

Both are outside a Pennsylvania Department of Education-imposed index of 3.2 percent and required exceptions to be requested by PDE by Feb. 20 with a vote taken by Feb. 15.

The final budget will be approved by June 30.

As it stands the tax millage rate will jump from the present 40.43 mills in Susquehanna County to 42.59 mills, and in Wyoming County from the current rate of 49.77 mills to 51.57.

The action last Tuesday is required under state law when a school district feels it may have to ask to raise taxes above a pre-determined rate set by the state, and the resolution kicks into gear a series of steps clearing the district’s way to make that request.

The board unanimously approved its $20,928,946 preliminary budget for the 2017-2018 fiscal year.

That budget is a $1.1 million increase over last fiscal year’s $19.8 million budget. The board first unveiled its preliminary budget in late January.
But Superintendent Ken Cuomo told the board that the district projects a revenue shortfall of $1,177,489.78 due to increases in its employee retirement, medical and salary costs.

“When you take just those three items which are next to impossible to control there is $683,000 of the revenue shortfall that is additional funds on last year’s budget,” Cuomo said. “By doing this at this time it opens the possibility for us to be able to bring in additional revenue as well as gives us more time to look at the budget, make changes,” Cuomo said. 

“Everything is on the table with regard to programs, personnel, resources, etc. There’s a lot in there and there’s a lot of things we’re going to have to work on,” he added.

Some progress has been made since last year, Cuomo told board members, but costs also continue to climb, he said. 

The district’s retirement account saw a $292,890 increase, its medical account a $155.155 boost and its salaries account jumped $234,425, he said. “Last year at this time we were at a $1.4 million revenue shortfall and this year we’re at $1.177. But there’s a lot of work to do moving forward, and some very tough decisions to be made.  We have a little extra time to be able to do that by moving forward here,” he said.

In the numbers heavy Valentine’s Night meeting, the board also heard from Paul T. Murphy, a certified public accountant who delivered highlights of the district’s 2015-2016 audit.

Murphy told board members much of what they already knew: quality public education of the type provided by Elk Lake is expensive and is going to get more expensive. One glowing number that popped off his spreadsheets was the ballooning costs of employee pensions.

According to Murphy, the 2015-2016 pension fund stood at $2,257.158 with the employee contribution rate running at 25.84 per cent.  Murphy said that same fund came in at $1.8 million the year before and had grown steadily from $792,000 in 2012. 
“So just in a matter of five years we went from $792,000 to $2.2 million. That’s hard to keep up with,” he said.

The state reimburses at just over 50 percent but the employer contribution rate went up from 28.4 percent to 30.03 percent. That percentage rate is scheduled to rise again next year to 32.57 and then eventually taper off in following years, according to the Pennsylvania School Employees’ Retirement System, the Harrisburg-based agency which manages teachers’ pension funds. Known as PSERS, the agency in December announced the new 32.57 employee contribution rate to begin July 1.

“It’s very well documented the difficulties in education funding,” Murphy told board members. “But the district was able to navigate through ‘15-‘16 still maintaining strong fund balances.  However they are decreasing, so not everything is rosy.  So the board and the administration will still have some difficult decisions in the near future.”

“There’s no maximum we can look at? I mean it may go up to 35 or 36?” asked board member Arden Tewksbury.

“It will go higher,” Cuomo said.

Murphy also told board members that the Susquehanna County Career and Technology Center’s general fund balance was projected to grow by $443,582 but fell short adding only $131,000 and ending with a final fund balance of $443,405.

“The career center navigated through ‘15-‘16 growing its fund balance.  It grew by $131,000.  Again it wasn’t as much as we had hoped but it did at least grow,” Murphy said, attributing the probable reason for the shortfall to the center getting fewer students than originally expected.

In other business Tuesday, the board also:

*Approved a projected $22,158.90 portion of the $5,335,638 2017-2018 operating budget for the Northeastern Educational Intermediate Unit 19. That is an increase of $1,869.

*Heard from Elk Lake Elementary principal Marc Weisgold who wanted to remind those interested that kindergarten registration is March 8, 9 and 10. He said to call 570-278-1106, Call ext. 732 for an appointment. Weisgold also wanted to draw attention to the school’s new electronic sign carrying announcement and general information.

*Weisgold also announced that a video about how Elk Lake Elementary staff and students Choose To Love One Another has been featured by the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation. The Foundation was started by Scarlett Lewis for her son, Jesse, who was a victim of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. 

“Our kids did a great job,” Weisgold said. The video is on the Foundation’s Facebook page. Search for “Elk Elementary School in Springville, PA”

*Heard from High School Principal Brian Mallery who said that the Winter Dance was scheduled for Feb. 25 but was subject to cancellation due to weather. 

*Passed a resolution fully supporting the dairy industry and encouraging the offering when possible of dairy products including whole milk and or any fluid dairy and manufactured dairy products.

The resolution, which stated the board’s position on the issue without specifically enacting a policy, was passed in response to federal guidelines on the subject.

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