Elected school board members can suggest tax cuts too. Or so Pittsburgh School Board President Darlene Harris hopes.
As the school district prepares its 2004 budget, Harris is pushing a homestead exemption for Pittsburgh residents in the coming year. Already implemented by the city and the county for their property taxes, the homestead exemption allows qualified homeowners to subtract the first $10,000 on a home's value when calculating the tax bill.
Harris broached her proposal at an Oct. 15 school board meeting -- less than a month after the Sept. 22 release of a report by the Mayor's Commission on Public Education. Among other things, that commission urged that Harris and the rest of the nine-member elected board be replaced by mayoral appointees. The commission had complained that the current board "contributes to ... high taxes," and it cited the board's "unnecessarily large" $81 million cash reserve as proof. The commission report recommended that the board pass a 2-mill tax cut.
Was Harris' proposal a reaction to the Mayor's Commission report? "Absolutely not," she says. "This is something I've been talking about for a long time. It was part of my campaign" -- which Harris lost during this year's May primary to upstart Patrick Dowd. Harris estimates the exemption's cost at $6 million -- not much more, she says, than what the school board sacrifices in tax subsidies for city development projects. "It's really time we give something back to the taxpayers, especially the senior citizens," she says.
To some of Harris' opponents on the school board, however, such talk sounds suspiciously like a stump speech to return to the seat she's losing at the end of the year. And next year, says district budget director Pete Camarda, the district will see surging expenses in areas of the budget it has little control over. State-mandated pension payments and special-education spending will increase a projected $6.5 million and $9.3 million, respectively. Health-insurance costs are also projected to rise, by nearly $10 million in 2004.
"Our money is going away, unfortunately," says Camarda. The exemption, he says, is "not a bad idea, but the timing is unfortunate."
Board member Randall Taylor, a frequent Harris opponent, agrees. "I think we should stay on the financial plan that we're on. This could be potentially dangerous as we're being hit with costs we didn't expect to see even a year ago. It's a time to be very fiscally conservative. This is the first I'm hearing of it, but off the top of my head I'm opposed to it."
Harris' exemption proposal will get a more public airing, along with other budget items, at the school board's Nov. 10 budget committee meeting.