Lehigh Valley

BASD board votes to approve proposed budget with a 5 percent tax hike

Bethlehem school district proposes 5 percent tax increase

BETHLEHEM, Pa. - In a special meeting of the Bethlehem Area School Board on Monday night, directors voted 6-3 to approve a proposed 2014-2015 budget that will increase taxes by 4.9 percent on property owners.

Dissenting were directors Basilio Bonilla, Jr., Eugene McKeon and Rogelio Ortiz.

Final adoption of the $242.5 million budget, which also includes the furloughing of 22 employees, is scheduled for June 16th.

"We have an obligation to our senior citizens and our taxpayers," noted Bonilla during a lengthy explanation of his "no" vote, in where he recited conversations with at least two senior citizens, one woman whom he said cried to him that she'd be forced to sell her house because she couldn't afford another tax increase.

McKeon said his "no" vote boiled down to the fact that in years past several directors chose to ignore the looming pension crisis that is now engulfing BASD and other districts across the commonwealth when they agreed to bring back programs that ultimately they could not pay for.

Ortiz did not discuss the motivations behind his vote.

Director Sudantha Vidanage said he felt bad for taxpayers and especially senior citizens on fixed incomes but that by not passing the proposed budget, the district was merely kicking the can down the street, and repeating the cycle where cuts to staff would have to be made, thus providing charter schools with another weapon in their arsenal to market against them.

And it's that marketing component, or lack thereof, that Vidanage said is badly hurting the district.

"Our good news does not spread out as much as our bad news," he said.

Public relations acumen aside, the issues sandbagging the school district are rising charter school costs - to the tune of $6.5 million according to the district, and PSERS' costs which the district said increased by $2.1 million.

"The net increase in operating cost for the 2014-2015 year without the impact of these mandated expenditure increases is only .29 percent above the operating costs for the current year reflecting very conservative spending on internal discretionary costs," the district wrote in an executive summary defending yet another tax increase.

"...It is important to note that without the $20.3 million in charter school tuition expenses, the BASD budget for 2014-2015 would require no tax increase."

And it's that fact that Director Angela Sinkler noted during her comments Monday night, saying that she would personally continue to contact her elected state representative and senator to implement real charter school and pension reform.

"Hopefully for some form of relief," she said, if not for this year, for the years moving forward.

During a public comment session, resident Randy Toman thanked Bonilla for his vote and told the board that you can only go to the well so often before the well runs dry.

"The people are out of money," he said about BASD's continued cycle of tax increases year after year.

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