School taxes were increased 1.89 percent Monday night by the Bangor Area School Board during a $51.3 million budget deal that was brokered after a drawn out debate that took four votes to resolve.
In another contentious vote, the board decided it will ask the state Auditor General to review the legal bills submitted by the law firm of its solicitor, attorney Donald Spry, a move promoted by board member Robert Cartwright and recommended by a committee who discussed the bills with Spry.
Spry identified $1,500 in charges that were mis-coded, and the firm issued $6,600 in credit to the district.
The controversy swirling around the bills involves a determination of what is covered by the retainer the firm has with the district and other legal bills that fall outside that definition.
Cartwright has repeatedly questioned the legitimacy of the district’s legal bills, which were $170,000 in 2012-2013, with $157,352 going to Spry’s law firm.
Spry, in his meeting with the committee, also endorsed the idea of having the matter referred to the Auditor General.
The questions over the legal fees sparked a heated exchange between board member Michael Goffredo and Ron Angle, a former school board member, Northampton County council member and long-time government critic.
Goffredo accused Angle of “orchestrating” the flap over the legal bills.
“This has been incredibly blown out of proportion,” Goffredo said.
He said if there are problems with the legal bills, they should be sorted out in Bangor, not by auditors in Harrisburg who do not know all the facts behind each particular legal case that generated the bills.
Board member Bruce Cameron, a member of the committee that dealt with the Spry bills, said the conditions that led to the decision to refer the matter to the AG were more of an insight into the “dysfunction of the board” than anything else.
The marathon meeting sparked heated debate on the legal bills and on the district’s long-term financial health, which touched off a “let’s make a deal” go-around with board members trying to find the magic number for a tax hike, coupled with how deep the board wanted to dip into its reserve account, to gain five votes needed to approve the district’s new budget.
Tax hikes of 2.7 percent, 1.7 percent, 1.9 percent and finally 1.8 percent were considered, along with the final decision to tap the reserve fund for $340,000.
For a property owner with a home assessed at $50,000, the new tax will mean an additional $52 tax bill. The new tax puts the millage rate at 52.4 mills.
Angle criticized the board for digging into its reserves and not cutting expenses. He also repeated his claims that property owners, particularly senior citizens on fixed incomes and families who never recovered from the layoffs and pay cuts from the Great Recession, cannot afford to pay any more taxes and are in danger of losing their homes in foreclosures.
The district made $800,000 in cuts this year, Superintendent Frank DeFelice said.
Business Manager Stephen Weineck warned the board difficult times lie ahead.
“It’s going to be pretty tough next year,” Weineck said, referring to next year’s budget process. He also gave the board some advice.
Two looming financial burdens -- pension costs and health care -- are the biggest concerns.
As for Affordable Health Care, or Obamacare, Weineck said, “Affordable Health Care is unaffordable for everyone.” He said Obama’s health care program “helped some people at the expense of everyone else.”