Residents of the Saucon Valley School District should not expect to enjoy another five years with no tax increases, warned a school board member Tuesday night.
Those residents have not seen any increase in school taxes for the last five years.
"I'd like it if we did not increase taxes for the next five years, but obviously the school district cannot afford to do that," said board member Edward Inghrim.
"The question is when and how much," said Inghrim. "It's not a pretty picture."
During Tuesday night's school board meeting, Inghrim made a presentation about the district's projected cash flows for the next five years, which he prepared with district business manager David Bonenberger.
Inghrim's bottom line is that property taxes will have to be increased, unless the state government fixes a massive pension liability problem, which he considers highly unlikely.
He explained if the school board does not increase taxes through 2018-19, "the increase in our costs, which is predominately salaries and pensions, is going to completely consume our reserves. They're gone. And we'll be about $2.3 million in the red."
The district's annual expenditures, which total more than $38.9 million in the current school year, are projected to rise to more than $49.6 million by the 2018-19 school year.
Revenue by 2018-19 is projected to be $43.1 million.
"By 2018, we're running around $6.5 million in the red," said Inghrim.
He said 70 percent of annual budgets are spent to pay salaries and benefits of district employees.
He said the biggest problem facing school districts everywhere are employees' pensions.
By 2017-18, according to Inghrim, those pensions will have increased 250 percent since 2011-12.
"It's huge," he said. "This is what's generating a crisis in this school district and every other school district.
"When you see Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton laying off teachers, it's a combination of salaries they can't afford and the pension increases that they also cannot afford."
Inghrim said the budget projections are one of the major "drivers" behind the district's position in still-stalled contract negotiations with its teachers union. "We don't want anybody to get fired."
After the board meeting, school officials said there has been no progress on resuming negotiations with the teachers' union for a new contract.
"We're still waiting to hear from the union on who their new team is and to provide a date on which they would like to continue negotiations," said district superintendent Sandra Fellin.
The district's 185 teachers have been working without a new contract since June 2012.
On Feb. 24, they rejected a tentative agreement that had been reached on Jan. 30 between the school district and their negotiating team.
During his presentation, Inghrim mentioned paying for teachers' continuing education is another big factor driving up costs for the district. He added the union wants to ignore that component, "but it's real in terms of the bottom line."
No tax increase for 2014-15?
Fellin, who is retiring in summer, hopes to avoid a tax increase in 2014-15. She wants Saucon Valley to be the only school district in Pennsylvania that can say it had no budget increase for six years in a row without cutting programs.
"Some of us have been looking at a sixth year of no tax increase," acknowledged Inghrim. He warned if taxes do not increase in 2014-15, they will have to increase by a total of nearly 16 percent in the following three school years.
Fellin did not comment on those projections.