If Easton City Council adopts a .75 percent earned income tax increase for employees who work in Easton but live outside the city, raising the tax from 1 percent to 1.75 percent, Joe Cervenka wants to know where the hikes will end.
Council member Jeff Warren’s response? Harrisburg.
At Monday night’s public hearing on the proposed commuter tax increase in Easton, Forks Township's Cervenka was the only city employee to address council.
The need for sweeping pension reform and regionalism dominated council’s discussion and underlie Northampton County Executive John Stoffa’s suggested remedies for Easton’s underfunded pensions.
The pension is currently at $1.5 million and will hit $3.8 million next year.
Stoffa presented council with two solutions. The first, that council should work with county council and state legislators to change pension laws, seemed obvious. But the second, and more controversial, involves collecting property tax from non-profits at a rate of 10, 15 or 20 percent of assessed values. Easton currently has 42 tax-exempt properties, and even Stoffa acknowledged that would be tough to change. “Everybody’s afraid to stick their hand into the fire,” he said.
While Mayor Panto said he would take Stoffa’s suggestions into account, he believes commuters are the best way to close the gap.
Of the 1,101 people working for Easton, 998 live elsewhere and would pay the tax, according to Northampton County Controller Stephen Barron Jr. With an additional $225 to $300 per person annually, the tax would raise about $1.35 million.
“We’ve done our job. We’ve cut,” Panto said. “We’re down to the marrow.”
Rather than taxing senior citizens on fixed incomes or the unemployed already at risk of losing homes, Panto said he’s placing the burden on those with jobs. “The last thing I want to do is vote for something that’ll burden senior citizens.”
Council member Roger Ruggles called the city the community’s center, echoing Mayor Panto’s earlier statement that Easton provides services that benefit surrounding areas.
Ruggles said that when people come into the city to work, thereby blurring the line between resident and non-resident, it’s difficult to decide what’s fair. But, he said, there shouldn’t be a line. “It’s not us versus them. It’s us.”
Panto cited fire trucks to help explain the need for unified action Ruggles described. According to Panto, four fire stations in the immediate area have ladder trucks. At $1 million each, he estimated the trucks are used three times a year. If Easton operated more as a part of a region and less as an independent city, taxpayers would have paid just $1 million instead of $4 million.
Panto also said a decrease for residents will not follow the increase for commuters. Though he hoped to drop taxes in 2013, the still-recovering economy will keep Eastonians’ taxes steady.
Council will vote on the tax August 8th.