WILKES-BARRE — Confronted with some withering criticism from resident Sam Troy regarding another proposed tax increase, Wilkes-Barre Area School Board Member Dino Galella countered that the district has one of the lowest, if not the lowest, total tax increases in Luzerne County in recent years.
It’s a claim easy to check through state records.
And the verdict? Close, but not quite lowest.
The state posts real estate tax millage rates for all school districts on the Department of Education website for anyone to rummage through. A mill is a $1 tax on every $1,000 of assessed property value.
Comparing millage directly is rarely equitable because smaller districts will usually raise far less money per mill than larger districts, simply because the latter typically have considerably more taxable property.
But comparing the tax increases fairly is a matter of percentages. And if you look at the rate in 2009-10 and at this year’s rate, Wilkes-Barre Area’s millage has risen 4.7 percent, from 14.8319 to 15.22. The state takes the data from the approved final budgets submitted by the districts each year.
Only one Luzerne County district has seen a smaller increase in the same time frame: Greater Nanticoke Area, where the millage rose from 9.9295 to 10.1777, or 2.5 percent. Coming in at third lowest is Hazleton Area, rising 5.7 percent from 8.698 to 9.195
The biggest increase: Lake-Lehman, which started out in 2009-10 with the lowest millage rate, at 7.8011, but has soared 24 percent to 9.6713.
Galella’s contention came at a special meeting called to approve a preliminary budget with another 2.9 percent increase in the real estate tax rate, the maximum amount allowed under state law. Even with the tax hike, Business Manager Leonard Przywara noted, the budget calls for spending more than the district expects to take in: $108.2 million compared to $104.5 million.
But Przywara also guaranteed the numbers would change before a final budget is approved. By law, that has to happen by June 30.
Before the vote, Troy questioned the need for the increase. A regular critic who takes the board to task most often over spending, Troy said an increase of about 0.4 mill “may not seem like a lot, but it’s a lot to the overburdened taxpayers of the district.
“We have what I would call an egregious disparity between the high poverty rate of people in this district and the rising property taxes,” Troy said, accusing the board of indifference to the plight of property owners.
Galella took exception, saying the board has kept a rein on tax hikes for several years, “at least since I’ve been on it.” Galella was elected in 2011.
Tax rates can only be compared fairly from 2009-10 on. That was the year countywide reassessment was put into effect, radically resetting millage rates that had become hopelessly skewed over four decades of neglecting the system.