I have trouble deciding whether to cry or cheer when public school district business managers start talking about the ups and downs of creating an annual budget.
Because I know the business managers have a difficult job.
And I know it must get old constantly having to rob Peter to pay Paul, in an effort not to raise school property taxes.
Business managers aren't born with horns on their heads and long pointed tails, after all.
But they are sometimes full of baloney -- looking at them from a taxpayers' point of view, anyway.
Last week, in a special report published on Page 1 of The York Dispatch, school business managers were crying the blues about how difficult it is to balance a school district budget when the property tax base in their districts is stagnant.
Well, of course, that's true.
For four or five years in a row residential property values throughout York County have been lower than the assessed values.
So that means property tax revenues, while steady, don't match the annual increases in school district expenses. More money would be going out than coming in.
That creates a predicament for business managers -- they either have to raise taxes to match expenses, or they have to find a way to cut expenses to match tax revenues.
The first will almost always result in taxpayers' creating an uproar.
The second will almost always result in school officials', teachers' and parents of students' creating an uproar, depending on what positions and/or programs have been cut.
And business managers don't like dealing with either one.
They'd prefer that residential property values increase each year just enough that revenues can increase without tax rates having to go up. That way no one needs to be the bad guy.
"You get natural (revenue) growth without doing anything," said York City School District business manager Richard Snodgrass.
In a perfect world, that would be, well, just about perfect.
But that's not the way it works in real life.
What business managers don't say, but as a matter of credibility they probably should, is that no matter what happens with the tax base or tax rates, school districts will always get the amount of money they ask for.
The only question is how much do they ask for? What it comes down to is school boards/school officials don't want to do prolonged battle with taxpayers over possible tax increases. So in the end, they find a way to cut expenses to avoid a tax increase or keep the increase as small as possible.
They don't like doing that, of course, but it's part of the process these days. In the old days, when property values went up automatically each year, school districts simply increased the budget, sometimes substantially, as they saw fit.
They didn't worry about the cost of salary increases and benefits. They didn't worry about the cost of construction. They didn't worry about the cost of extracurricular activities. They didn't worry about much of anything. Because there was always plenty of money.
If they wanted it, they got it. And the taxpayers paid for it.
As a property owner and taxpayer in York County -- and I'm in the same boat as everyone else -- my school taxes have gone up every year no matter what my property values are/were.
Either I'm taxed on the value of my property (up or down) at a given tax rate or the tax rate is increased. If my property value is up, my property taxes go up. If my property value is down, but the tax rate goes up, my taxes still go up.
Either way, the school district gets its money.
Since 2006, school taxes throughout York County have gone up about 21 percent. And that's in a down economy with depressed property values.
At the same time, school expenses have increased $60.6 million, an increase of 27 percent over 2006. Again, in a down economy.
Therein lies the problem. It's not that property values are down so much as school expenses are on the rise. The truth is that school boards and school officials don't like the idea of holding the line on the district budget. They don't want to negotiate reasonable union contracts and benefits. They don't want to cut expenses, in general.
Because it's always easier to spend other people's money without regard for where it's coming from and for what those people have to do to get it, than it is to hold firm on expenses.
What business managers are really saying when they're whining about stagnant property values is they're forced to do the difficult part of their job a little better -- managing expenses. And they don't like it. I don't blame them, but it is their job.
When they start doing that with more urgency they won't have to worry as much about property values or balancing the budget.
Because the budget will balance itself.
And taxpayers will be ever grateful.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.