It’s important to remember getting funds for services can’t really be just about raising taxes

November 14 – Let’s dig into what we’ve been seeing locally with services and taxes. 

With the end of 2023 upon us a lot of municipalities are looking at their 2024 budgets and with those discussions comes the talk of taxes and fees. 

In the borough of Chambersburg, there will be no millage increase in the four taxes collected – the police tax, the fire and ambulance tax, recreation bond tax, and the police station tax.

The electric rate will go up about 11.3 percent and the water rate will go up $.03 for every 75 gallons used.  

The ambulance fee in Chambersburg will go from $9.50 to $11 per month. 

At last night’s Borough Council Meeting, that topic was discussed. 

Allen Coffman, borough council president, said, “The reason for that is the increased costs we have with the ambulance service and there’s an amount that we have to write off every year as it is now. That does not balance it out. We don’t have a fix for that. We need a fix from the state to help us with that or from Washington DC to help us with that.”

What about giving a break to senior citizens? 

Coffman said, “It would be nice if we could do that, but our deficit at the end of this year for the ambulance fund is about $1.9 million. So I don’t see that happening and you have to remember almost half of our council right now is on a fixed income as well. So it’s not like everybody sitting on council is working and making money and so forth. We’re under the same constraints as what our population is, too.”

Attorney Clint Barkdoll recalled, “Not long ago within the last 20 years, is when most municipalities implemented this emergency services tax. It’s typically $1 a week out of your paycheck. So $52 a year is earmarked for those programs. But what a lot of the ambulance and fire departments have said over the years is that it is nowhere near enough to keep up with their budgets and that has never been increased for inflation.”

Yesterday a PA Senate Committee said no to raising the fees from cell phone bills that go to subsidize county 911 and dispatch centers. 

Barkdoll said, “The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, they’re saying unless they get increases through like cell phone bills, the county governments are having to absorb more and more of those expenses and the state is not subsidizing any of it. So municipalities with ambulances, their ambulance services, they’re having the same problem. I don’t know what the solution is because there’s only so many resources that they can utilize in the form of taxes or this emergency services tax. It seems like some of the state channels of funding are at a minimum, staying flat. They are not increasing and that’s where the pain is being created for the municipalities.”

Someone at the Chambersburg Borough Council meeting last night suggested raising taxes to cover the ambulance fee. 

Coffman said, “That’s not exactly the way that we want to operate. We didn’t want to hammer people with increased taxes if we can find other ways to do it.”

There is a limit on the millage rates in the borough. 

Barkdoll said, “Those caps at the municipal level are statutory and there are caps and once you hit that cap, you can’t go any higher. Now some municipalities, they’ll try to do work-arounds by redefining what constitutes a mil. I’ve seen some of that over the years and the same is true of the school districts. Statutorily they are limited each year in how much as a percentage, they’re able to raise taxes and if they go over that it actually has to go on a ballot for voters to approve which rarely happens because they know it would not get approved. If there’s just citizens standing up saying, hey, you just need to keep raising it. It’s not that simple because they may already be at their statutory cap.”

Pat Ryan of NewsTalk 103.7FM pointed out, “This is important. I want to make sure because we’ve got people that rattle their mouths off and drill out keyboard warrior stuff here that have no concept and are so short on knowledge and it’s pathetic. It’s getting worse and worse here. You can’t just increase taxes in Chambersburg.”

Coffman confirmed, “You can’t do that forever because there’s a cap. Thirty mils is the cap. We are right now at 25. The millage cap is set under the borough code, which is I believe, done by the state. So we’re operating under their rules and five mils left is not very much with the way inflation’s been going, and I don’t see it slowing down. It’s not much of a cushion left for us, really.”

Michele Jansen of NewsTalk 103.7FM noted, “I’m going to sound like a broken record here, but it’s not surprising, first of all, that you had to raise utility rates. Why? Because utility rates are going up all over. Why? Because of the policies of the current administration at the state level. So if you don’t like it, if you don’t like your utility bills going up, if you don’t want them to raise taxes next year, which they’ll have to if the inflation, then vote out the people that are making the policies that are crushing us. I don’t care whether the borough raises the taxes or the county or the school district or the state, it’s because of those policies. Guess what everybody? The money we hope to get some up from the state or the federal level, that’s still the taxpayers’ money and actually they don’t have that money. We are printing it. We are borrowing it and we are paying so much in interest on that debt right now. So again, please everybody realize it’s those people you’re voting for who are putting the policies in place that are crushing us.” 

Ryan suggested, “If you get a 30 percent participation rate when it comes to elections, then apparently you’re okay with your water going up, your electricity going up. You’re okay with that, because you’re not participating in the process. I’m preaching to the choir because most of the people listening to the radio stations are getting out.”

Jansen added, “But how much are they getting out and getting their friends and families and neighbors to go vote. That’s your duty, too. People aren’t realizing what’s going on. They really aren’t and the only way they feel pain is if you raise the taxes here at these more local levels. I almost wish we would just do that. Go to the max to really show people this is where we are. This is how we’re going broke in this country. If you keep relying on federal funding, well, federal funding is just more printing money and more borrowing. That keeps it out of people’s minds and they don’t have the realization unless it hits them hard at this local level where they can really see it.”

Barkdoll said, “Here’s an overarching theme of all of that and your strategy may be a good one to get people’s attention, but it also gets back to this county tax property reassessment. I’ve been hearing this for years from municipal officials. Franklin County hasn’t reassessed property taxes since 1961. It’s the oldest county in the state that has failed to do reassessment. Forever, the commissioners wouldn’t touch this issue. You can go back over campaigns historically and they would never touch it. I remember years ago a commissioner said to me that they would wait for the court to force them to do this which I thought was just what an awful leadership position for an elected official to take. I think it’s changing. If you now look at the candidates for office, they seem very open now doing reassessment. Might the stars be finally lined up here to do county reassessment? It will be a big expense, by the way, for the county government. Millions of dollars because they’ve waited so long to do it. But a lot of borough and township officials and to a lesser extent school officials, really think reassessment would help solve some of these problems that we’re discussing here right now.” 

Franklin County Commissioner John Flannery said, “I think a lot of that’s going to depend on new commissioner Dean Horst’s stand on that. We haven’t had that conversation obviously yet, but we’ve been discussing it. It’s something that’s got to be done. I think the biggest part of that is to educate our community on what a reassessment actually is and what it does. The easiest way to explain it is it just resets the tax base. A third of people’s property taxes will stay exactly the same. A third will probably go up and a third will probably go down. The county will not receive additional taxes from doing a reassessment alone. However, it will allow the municipalities more flexibility, those that do tax, to increase taxing.”

Jansen noted, “It’s interesting. Everyone has an idea that everything’s going to go up. I think the real issue when it comes to reassessment is making things more fair between property owners because there’s people with new properties and they’re getting taxed to death and there’s people with old properties that are not paying their fair share and that that’s the real issue, isn’t it with reassessment?”

“That’s exactly right,” Flannery confirmed. “There is a fear that some of our older population that have lived in their home for 30 or 40 years, you’re not allowed to ever do a spot reassessment. The county can’t go out and just periodically reassess based on suspicion. It would affect those older community members that have lived at the same property for an extended period of time. But like you said, some of these new property owners that are building houses are getting taxed out the rear end. So it’s unfair.”

Why has it taken this long to consider a reassessment? 

Flannery said, “I think we were trying to push it to this term. There’s so many unknowns, you have to establish a budget for it, which we’ve tried to do. The number we’re going to hear that the county is going to have to spend to reassess is going to cost us approximately $4 million, and that’s a give or take a million. So we have to budget for that and prepare for it, which I think those conversations have kind of led us to this point. So we’re more prepared to do it now financially than we were when I took office four years ago, for instance. Let’s be honest with the public perception of what a reassessment is, it’s death to a candidate. That’s what it’s been in other counties throughout Pennsylvania over the last 30 years. The commissioners that decide to do a reassessment never get reelected. So that’s an unfortunate part of the process, but that plays into I’m sure some of the thoughts of current commissioners.”

Jansen said, “We have to face reality. When we were talking about oh, we’re so happy we didn’t raise taxes in the borough. You know what? Let’s face reality here. If you get federal money, that’s just debt and burden for our progeny, for our children, our grandchildren. We have to face reality. If you’re going along with politicians and happy, happy policies of spending all this money, then you have to pay the piper. I think we’ve shielded too many from the reality of this and maybe if we didn’t, then we’d have the people in office and we’d demand the policies that are going to actually make our country more prosperous.”

Flannery agreed, “On a county level, over the last four years, I’ve looked at what we spend, how we spend it. Do we need to spend more? Do you really want the county to grow as far as the county government, not the county itself? Because the county is growing. I am sure at some point that we are going to face a tax increase in the county. It’s going to happen. It’s inevitable sooner or later with inflation, cost of living, but my job and part of the reason I was elected as a business owner and I think this is going to translate to Dean as well, is in business we have to cut corners sometimes. We have to do things. We have to be efficient. We have to be tight. We have to run a tight ship. That’s our job as county commissioners, there’s a fine line between waste money and spending needed money. County operations right now are running as good as they ever have. We haven’t had to raise taxes, nor do we intend to raise taxes this year. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you there’s not going to be a 2024 county tax increase. We will finalize that budget here within the next month and a half. But again, it’s about efficiency. Are we doing it right? I have no problem paying more money for something if it’s justified. At this point and over the last four years, I feel in the county it hasn’t been justified. There’s things we’ve been able to do to be more efficient, run the country better and not have to increase taxes.”

The current proposed budget for the borough of Chambersburg has been online for at least a week. 

Coffman said, “I think there were around 130 visits to look at that. Now one person could have gone back maybe three or four or five times if they didn’t look at it all at once. But nevertheless, that number falls about where we normally are with people looking at the budget online, which means that there wasn’t a real increase in the number of people that looked at it. So it doesn’t sound to me like there was a lot of interest in what was going on with it.”

Ryan pointed out, “And then the handful of people that are interested in it are just so damn misinformed, that they’ll rattle off at these meetings and think that they’re saying something when all they’re doing is listening to their own damn voice.”