Mount Gretna homeowners hit with higher taxes after reassessment

This house on Pennsylvania Avenue is one of more than 20 homes for sale in Mount Gretna. Earlier this year there were 36 properties on the market. (Jeff Ruppenthal / Staff)

Pennsylvania's “age-old” struggle to eliminate school property taxes and shift that tax burden elsewhere is back on Harrisburg's radar. Whether lawmakers will actually be able to make massive changes to the state’s main source of education funding remains unclear.

Pennsylvanians are ready for a total overhaul of state taxes, with 61% supporting it, according to a Franklin & Marshall College Poll released last week. As Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Landisville, told his fellow Senate leaders, the property taxes have been controversial in Pennsylvania since the 1600s.

But if lawmakers want to eliminate the school property tax, they need to find $15.285 billion just this year that's generated by the tax. And this number is expected to continue to grow by approximately $500 million per year, according to Independent Fiscal Office predictions.

For decades, lawmakers have tried to find a solution, said G. Terry Madonna, who directs the poll and F&M's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. He called it the “age-old problem.”

One proposal that is consistently presented would eliminate school property taxes and fund school districts by increasing the personal income tax and sales tax, plus expanding what goods can be taxed under Pennsylvania's 6% sales tax.

This proposal has failed in numerous ways, whether on the Senate floor or on the ballot. It most recently made it to the Senate floor in 2015 and lost by just one vote. Aument and then-Sen. Lloyd Smucker both co-sponsored the bill in 2015.

"Every time you adjust the taxes you produce winners and losers," Madonna said. "I've been through this for decades. It's just very hard to do."

There's a new proposal in town from Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon. This one proposes a 4.92% tax on retiree income, exempting Social Security, which would allow the state to eliminate the school property tax.

Jim Rodkey, who leads nonpartisan group Pennsylvania Property Rights Association, called the school property tax “immoral” at a Senate majority policy committee on Tuesday at Penn State York campus.

"I do firmly believe we're smart enough in Pennsylvania… to come to a solution that works for all of Pennsylvania," Rodkey said.

Sen. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, told attendees at Tuesday's workshop that one of his constituents attempted suicide because he was unsure how he could afford his property taxes. This is a reality for many of his aging constituents on fixed incomes, he added.

"If we can't get something to the finish line, we need to help the seniors," Scavello added.

Residents in Lancaster County want relief from the ever-increasing school property taxes. Every municipality raised its school millage rate for the upcoming school year, except for Warwick Township, Elizabeth Township and Lititz Borough. These municipalities kept it at the same rate as the previous year.

"From Columbia Borough… to Elanco, to Manheim, to Ephrata to Elizabethtown - I hear it everywhere," Aument said in an interview in Harrisburg on Wednesday. "I don't think there's a district, at least in northern Lancaster County, that's immune from passion around that topic and that issue."

Aument said he has concerns about Senate Bill 76, like how only some funding is pushed through the state's recent Fair Funding Formula, but he would support the bill if it came back to the Senate floor. He said he’s in the process of planning a town hall in Lancaster County to hear from residents about school property taxes.

Gov. Tom Wolf supports property tax reform - even proposing a reduction in school property taxes in his first budget - but would need to evaluate what proposals come up this time around before putting his support behind a bill, his spokesperson J.J. Abott wrote in an email.

Grace Strittmatter, a former member of the Manheim Township School Board and citizen-activist, said she and other organizers are optimistic they can make it happen this time around. Many special interest groups opposed SB 76 last time, so this time they're targeting the special interests to get them on board, too.

Strittmatter is a member of the Chester Lancaster Anti School Tax Association. She’s been advocating to get rid of school property taxes for years. She said she lives in a modest home and spends more than $2,000 each year, just on this tax.

"It has to happen sooner or later," Strittmatter said. "There's a better way to fund the public school system.