CATAWISSA RR - Would a property owner vote to have his or her own taxes raised?

It's an unlikely scenario, but that's what Southern Columbia Area School Board is banking on in addressing a budget shortfall for the 2014-15 school year.

In what is believed to be the first case of an Act 1 referendum being attempted locally, the board voted last week to put a property tax increase question to the voters in the May 20 primary.

While Vice President Charlie Porter voted in favor of the motion, he said Saturday he doesn't think the voters will approve it.

However, "The public has a right to make the choice, especially since there's no cost to put it on the ballot," he said.

A representative of the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) could not be reached for comment, but Porter said the board was told by PDE that such a referendum has been

attempted only 16 times in the state, and it only succeeded once.

A referendum to raise taxes to fund a building project years ago at Southern was also defeated, Porter said.

Filling the gap

The budget, which still has a $650,000 deficit gap to fill, is being driven by ongoing teacher contract negotiations, health care and pension costs and debts from the last building project, Porter said.

Before the May primary, it is Porter's intention to inform the voters on teacher negotiation issues if a settlement is not reached soon, but he would not clarify what specific information he would want to release.

"We owe it to the voters to put out as much information and context as possible," he said.

The Pennsylvania Taxpayer Relief Act of 2006, otherwise known as Act 1, requires school districts to limit tax increases to a level set by an inflation index, unless a higher increase is approved by the voters in a referendum or the school district obtains certain referendum exceptions from the Department of Education or a court of common pleas.

Voters in every school district will have the final say on extraordinary tax increases, according to the act.

"Schools boards will still be able to raise property taxes each year to keep up with inflation, and they can receive referendum exceptions for emergencies and educational necessities. But after that, tax increases will require voter approval," the act reads.

If the voters give the district the OK, Columbia County voters could face a tax increase of 7.58 mills, resulting in a tax increase of $243.01 for a homeowner whose property is assessed with the average value of $32,060. Northumberland County's proposed tax increase would be 5.11 mills, a $121.49 tax increase for a property at the average assessment of $23,775 if approved by the voters.

The district would only raise the tax rate as much as needed to balance the budget, officials previously said.

The referendum issue was discussed by the finance committee, which consists of Porter and Directors Gail Zambor Schuerch and Charlene Cove.