It doesn't have to be this way. The General Assembly could act favorably on a commonsense approach to local fiscal stability by giving us a tool to cut property taxes and help support critical funding for police and fire services.
House Bill 1858 gives counties the option to increase the sales tax by 1 percent. Philadelphia and Allegheny Counties have had this option for years. In fact, 40 states have enacted a local sales tax to support local communities. It is a fair way to help pay for services used by visitors and other "out of towners."
But is this the right time to raise any tax? Actually it is the best time to reduce property taxes, and that's exactly what counties and local governments would be required to do under the proposal. For example, if $4 million were collected for the city of York, $2 million would go directly to municipal property tax reduction. That's 2.1 mils of tax or $118 on an average residential property assessed at $56,000. That's real property tax reduction for the first time in 30 years.
Where would the non-tax reduction funds go? In York, 70 percent of our city budget funds public safety services. The dramatic increase in health care costs and automatic salary increases in our union contracts have had a detrimental impact on our public safety costs. Having attended many neighborhood meetings over the years, cutting cops and firefighters has never been embraced by residents. In fact, we have heard loudly and clearly that they want more officers patrolling and more firefighters inspecting properties and helping to fight blight.
Through grants and the elimination of non-public-safety positions, the number of York City police officers now totals 106. With that said, when grant-funding alternative sources of revenue for these positions expire, city government will be back to square one in terms of keeping up with current staffing levels.
This restructuring can be effective; however, reducing personnel has its negative impacts as well. The loss of institutional knowledge and fewer people doing more adversely affects customer service and outcome-based performance.
HB 1858 is the right way to enact a tax. Why not have a system of tax fairness that can evolve regionally?
But remember, the local option is only enacted when the county adopts it or a majority of municipalities with the most people publicly support it. In other words, it will only happen if your local leaders work to get it. Enacting the option is certainly not automatic.
Yes, as Pennsylvania goes, this is a relatively new idea and may cause the anti-tax fervor to add disciples to the growing chorus of those vehemently opposed to any tax of any kind, anywhere. I wonder where these same people have been for the last 30 years as local governments have been forced to dramatically increase the over-burdensome property tax while state legislators could walk around spouting that they didn't raise your taxes.
Let's get it right this time. Let's make sure our local communities are strong enough to weather the recession by avoiding cuts in public safety services. Let's do it with a new relationship between the commonwealth and our local communities. Give us the tools to make the tough choices and we'll get the job done.
John S. Brenner is mayor of the City of York and past presi dent of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities.