VERNON TOWNSHIP — When Crawford Central School Board member Kevin Merritt voted one of two votes against the district’s 2022-23 budget on Monday, it wasn’t because he opposed the increase in 3% of the property tax that came with it.
Merritt’s ‘no’ vote, which he described as a protest vote, came down to a question of $5 – the amount charged to each district resident aged 18 and over through the per capita tax of the district.
While some might celebrate the elimination of any tax, however small, Merritt was in no mood to celebrate when he spoke to The Meadville Tribune days before the council is due to vote on the budget.
“I’m really exhausted from the per capita tax,” Merritt said of the impending elimination.
One of the main sources of his anger was the way the tax was eliminated.
“We weren’t told,” Merritt said. “If you didn’t look at your budget, you didn’t know that.”
And while the board’s vote on the budget was a tacit endorsement of eliminating the per capita tax that had been left out, Merritt said that’s not how the process should work.
“We didn’t have an open discussion,” he said.
The discussion that took place took place at the June 20 board meeting, as members reviewed the final budget proposal. When Merritt raised the issue, he and business manager Guy O’Neil chatted on the topic for several minutes, offering starkly contrasting characterizations of the per capita tax and how it’s administered.
“It’s one of the easiest to collect,” Merritt said at one point.
“No, it’s one of the hardest to recover,” O’Neil replied.
The problem, O’Neil explained, is that tracking who turns 18, who moves out, and who moves into a municipality has landed in the laps of elected tax collectors in each municipality. While county officials have a list of who should be charged the per capita tax, O’Neil suggested the list isn’t accurate — and Merritt disagreed.
“The county is still maintaining the rolls,” he said.
“They don’t maintain them,” O’Neil replied, “they just keep the ones they have. There is no one doing the work. »
Crawford County Chief Assessor Joe Galbo acknowledged that the process for administering per capita taxes has changed over the past decade with the elimination of elected per capita assessors who tracked those eligible for the tax.
Having just one person to go house to house would be a better way to ensure accuracy, Galbo said in an interview Monday, but many municipalities were running out of assessors per capita even before the positions were cut. Since then, teamwork between county staff and municipal tax collectors has enabled the continued administration of the tax.
“The tax collectors continue to maintain the rolls and will continue to maintain the rolls of the county, which still collects the per capita tax, and the townships, which collects it overall,” Galbo said.
Moments later, however, he changed his characterization of the role the county assessment office plays in the process.
“We’re tasked by the legislature to maintain the overall per capita list — basically, a better word would be ‘produce’ the roll,” Galbo said. “So in terms of it being maintained, it used to be these elected local assessors per capita. As I said, this obligation fell de facto to the local tax collectors, who are responsible for sending the invoices by post.
Galbo described the school district’s decision to eliminate its per capita tax as “unusual,” especially considering that “they themselves were doing nothing but reaping the benefits.”
The benefit, Merritt noted, is easily quantifiable.
The $5 tax is relatively minor for individuals, but for the district it amounts to about $64,000 per year. Plus, Merritt said, that number could have been doubled. State law allows school districts to collect two $5 per capita taxes, but Crawford Central only collected one.
The $64,000 the district was raising represents less than one-tenth of 1% of the district’s overall operating budget of $67.8 million for 2022-23. Yet, Merritt said, it’s revenue that must be offset by either spending cuts or increased revenue elsewhere.
At a time when board members have repeatedly heard from members of the public calling for reduced class sizes, $128,000 in annual revenue from $10 per capita tax per adult resident could be helpful, even if the cost of collecting the tax eats away at those revenues by about $11,000.
The most likely source of revenue to offset the eliminated per capita taxes, according to Merritt, is the district’s property owners. Part of what makes the per capita tax attractive to Merritt is the fact that it’s spread across all adults in the district, not just homeowners.
According to O’Neil, there’s a better way to give homeowners a break, especially given what he described as a less-than-ideal administration of per capita tax rolls.
“It’s an inefficient system,” O’Neil told school board members during their budget discussion last week. “It is also a nuisance tax for all those who pay a property tax. I mean, if you raise 3 percent (on the property tax rate), at least you could give them a $5 reduction so they don’t have to pay that tax, and put a stamp on it , and a check.