York County homeowners don't have to reach too far into their memories to recall paying school property tax increases of 8 to 10 percent nearly every year. Property taxes will continue to rise this year, as all but three York County school districts raised taxes for the 2014-15 school year.
But these days, school districts have to deal with tax caps. The limits came along as part of Act 1, the 2006 law that mandated tax relief from slots revenue when Pennsylvania legalized casinos.
And while the relief might not have lived up to expectations, an analysis by The York Dispatch shows those tax caps have gone a long way toward stemming steep school property tax hikes.
Had those tax caps not been imposed, millage rates would be even higher today, said state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township.
"What would have happened is they (school districts) would have done huge sweeping increases — 10, 12 percent — instead of inflationary increases," Grove said.
Tax increases were that high in several cases from 2001 and leading up to the tax cap legislation. Districts such as Red Lion, Spring Grove and Central York had tax increases of more than 8 percent for multiple years in a row, with some years exceeding 10 or 11 percent.
Other districts, including Dover and York Suburban, hit the 8 percent mark less frequently, but often had increases of 6 or 7 percent. In the 2005-06 school year, the York City school district increased taxes by 16 percent.
The caps: School business officials agree the caps have changed the way school budgets are created.
But others, including taxpayers, say the caps aren't enough to fully stem the financial burden of taxes for York property owners.
The caps were first enacted in the 2006-07 budget year under Act 1. Since that year, the state Department of Education has set an annual tax cap for every school district across Pennsylvania.
Districts can apply to the state for exceptions in certain circumstances, including to help cover special education or pension costs. The districts can also go to voter referendum, asking citizens to approve a tax increase above the state cap.
Exceptions: Some school districts apply for exceptions as a safety net in case adequate state funding doesn't come through.
Four school districts in York County applied for exceptions this year: the Central York, South Western, York Suburban and West York districts. Only West York went above the cap, though the other three raised taxes to the state-permitted cap.
At York Suburban, the decision to apply for the exceptions came from uncertainty in the budget and a concerted effort not to cut programs, said Corinne Mason, director of finance and support services.
"The approach we took this year was, 'What can we do to keep the programs intact?'" Mason said.
South Western has applied for exceptions almost every year but only used them once, said Jeff Mummert, the district's business manager. And though taxes are still increasing, it's not at the rate from previous years, he said.
"I would argue that it's (Act 1) been extremely successful," he said. "You don't see 20 to 30 percent tax increases anymore."
In the last six years, there hasn't been a tax hike higher than 5 percent anywhere in York County but the York City and West Shore school districts. And districts are reluctant to be repeat offenders of exceeding the caps. In the past eight years, only Spring Grove has used exceptions four times — the county average over that same time period is 1.6 times.
Grove said the same is true for trends statewide. The number of districts pledging they won't go above the tax caps has steadily increased, with this year's totals showing 316 out of 500 districts stating by February they wouldn't go above the cap.
The tighter tax caps and limited exceptions mean school boards are required to pay attention to budgets instead of raising taxes without a good reason, Grove said.
"I think it's refocused school districts on their primary goal of what they should and should not be spending," Grove said.
Statewide, school districts exceeded the cap 17 percent of the time from the 2008-09 through 2013-14 school years — the last year for complete state data. York County school districts have done slightly better, with 14 tax hikes exceeding the cap in the 96 school budgets approved during that time. That's 14.6 percent of the time.
Wrong target: But York Suburban school board member Joel Sears said the tax caps create a distraction from the black-and-white issue of whether schools board are raising taxes at all. Instead, the caps allow boards to raise taxes each year to a limit, while still looking as if they've performed their "due diligence" for state-allowed increases.
"That (tax cap) becomes the target even if it's the wrong target," Sears said. "It's the acceptable target."
And though the increases are supposed to match inflation, that doesn't always help people with fixed incomes, said Ralph Felter, a Spring Garden Township resident living in the York Suburban School District.
"When you're on a retirement income, unless you have unlimited funds, you start to take notice of that kind of thing," Felter said.
To the limit: And though York districts going above the cap are few, the number rises when looking at those that have raised taxes up to the limit. From the 2008-09 to 2014-15 school years, York County districts have gone to the state cap 37 times, or 33 percent of the time. Added to those that exceeded the cap, that's 46 percent of the time.
That's a trend that can be explained by looking at state funding, said Rep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York.
"That's a really good metric to say that the commonwealth is not funding education adequately, or efficiently, or enough," Schreiber said.
Broadening the tax base to other sources of income and funneling that to education, such as increasing sales tax, could be a start, he said. Additional taxes on businesses, such as those suggested in Rep. Grove's property tax reform bill, could also be in the mix.
But while Felter, the Spring Garden resident, believes the responsibility for new education lies with the state, it's also the responsibility of more taxpayers to be proactive during a school's budget process. Instead of attending school board meetings or talking with legislators, people spend their time complaining about their tax bills with neighbors.
"A lot of people talk about this stuff," Felter said. "Not a lot are involved."
— Reach Nikelle Snader at firstname.lastname@example.org.