In close vote, Erie School Board approves 4.45% tax hike

The increase will cost nearly $80 more for owner of a home assessed at $100,000, though homestead exemption program will blunt the impact for many.

Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News

The Erie School Board has approved a tax increase of 4.45%.

Barely.

By a 5-4 vote on Wednesday night, the board passed the increase as part of its budget of more than $250 million for 2022-23, effective July 1.

The tax increase initially appeared to fail after the board voted 4-4 to approve it, with the tie dooming the budget resolution.

Then School Director Leatra Tate rejoined the meeting remotely after she lost her connection just as the board voted on the budget.

Tate voted to approve the budget with the 4.45% tax increase.

She was the only School Board member to participate remotely in the board's regular monthly meeting, at East Middle School.

The 4.45% tax hike will increase school property taxes by $78.85 for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000. The increase will raise about $2.3 million in additional revenue in 2022-23.

Ready to vote:To counter pandemic woes, Erie School Board considers highest tax increase since 2013

Erie schools Superintendent Brian Polito recommended the 4.45% tax increase — the largest at the 10,000-student district since a 7.3% hike in 2013 — to build up revenue so the district can continue to pay for pandemic-related support services after federal aid for the services runs out in 2024. The services include increased mental health counseling and academic improvement programs for students who have struggled during the pandemic.

The 4.45% increase is also higher than the 2.46% increase recommended in the school district's state-mandated financial improvement plan. The district adopted the plan three years ago in exchange for its receipt of $14 million in recurring annual state aid to stay solvent.

Polito in November petitioned the state Department of Education to remove the district from the plan, citing the district's financial stability. The request is pending.

The Erie School Board has approved a tax increase in the 2022--23 budget, following the recommendation of Superintendent Brian Polito, based at the Erie School District administration building, at West 21st and Sassafras streets.

The four school directors who voted against the 4.45% tax increase said they favored an increase of closer to 2.46% due to high inflation and other economic hardships for taxpayers, though board President Lori Pickens said she would also be comfortable with an increase of 3.5%. The four who voted against the 4.45% increase were Pickens, board Vice President John Harkins and Gwendolyn Cooley and Rosemary Sheridan.

Harkins suggested the board hold off on a vote until after the state approves its 2022-23 budget later in the month, with the hope that the state's budget will provide more funding to the Erie School District than estimated. The state's budget is also effective July 1, and talks in Harrisburg are ongoing.

Polito said the board could adjust the district's finances a year from now, in the 2023-24 budget, if the state provides more funding for the district than expected in 2022-23. He cautioned that waiting to vote on the district's budget until the state passes a budget could create problems for the district in getting tax bills printed in time for the 2022-23 tax cycle.

Initial proposal:4.45% tax hike proposed to retain Erie School District programs added during pandemic

The five school directors who voted for the 4.45% tax increase said the district needs to boost programs to help students with mental health challenges and other issues long after the pandemic is over. The five were Tate, Jay Breneman, Daria Devlin, Lauren Gillespie and Sumner Nichols.

Devlin was among the five directors who said passing the 4.45% increase now makes sense because of how the state's homestead exemption program will blunt the hike for many homeowners.

Polito said the 4.5% tax increase will have no effect on a home assessed at $100,000 because of additional relief for homeowners enrolled in the homestead exemption program. Even with a 4.45% tax increase, the additional homestead relief will mean the owner of home assessed at $100,000 would come out $10 ahead in 2022-23, according to district records.

The state gives homestead exemption reductions using gaming revenue. Homeowners must apply for the exemptions for their primary residences

On Wednesday night, the Erie School Board held its hourlong meeting before a nearly empty auditorium at East Middle School. Only one resident addressed the board over the tax hike — Richard Gorski, a retiree who said the increase is too high for him and other retirees. Gorski also spoke at the board's nonvoting study session a week ago

Before voting against the tax increase, Sheridan said she was "disappointed that more of our taxpayers haven't shown up tonight."

Contact Ed Palattella at epalattella@timesnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.