HOPEWELL SCHOOL DISTRICT: Board says borough tax rate up 13 cents because of lower ratables

By Frank Mustac, Special Writer
Board of Education President Lisa Wolff used a PowerPoint presentation to help explain why Hopewell Borough property owners are seeing a higher increase in their school tax levy than their neighbors in Pennington Borough and Hopewell Township.
The levy is $1.53 per $100 of assessed value for owners of homes and other properties in Hopewell Borough, which is 13 cents more than last year.
Pennington Borough’s levy is $1.52, a 4-cent increase from a year ago, and Hopewell Township’s is $1.55, which means an annual rise of 6 cents.
“I point this out because, recently, we’ve been getting a lot of questions from Hopewell Borough residents asking why their taxes went up more so than other municipalities did,” Ms Wolff said. “I thought it was important that we answered them.”
The 13-cent increase in Hopewell Borough primarily has to do with a decrease in ratables in the borough, she explained at the Board of Education meeting Monday.
In Hopewell Borough, total ratables decreased by more than $20.5 million since the 2014-15 Hopewell Valley Regional School District budget was approved, said Ms. Wolff, quoting figures she said come from Mercer County Tax Assessor Marty Guhl.
Total ratables, also known as the ratable base, essentially is the sum of all assessed values of properties that can be taxed by a local government.
The decrease in Hopewell Borough’s ratable base means property owners are being charged a higher school tax levy to pay the borough’s share for K-12 public education.
The school district’s general fund budget for 2015-16 is roughly $74.4 million, an increase of 0.9 percent over last year, Ms. Wolff said, explaining the figure represents “the lowest general fund increase in our history.”
She said she believes one of the messages received by Hopewell Borough property owners is the reason for their school tax levy increase was due to school district spending. Property taxes for schools, she explained, come from just those two numbers — the general fund and debt service.
“In general, the board really has no effect on the debt service so the only number that we can control is the general fund increase,” she said. “We have no control over the debt service. I am going to say that one thing that is true is when you get your tax bill each year, the largest portion is for the schools. But as far as the (tax levy) increase goes, the increase was not due to our school district — the (general fund) increase was 0.9 percent.”
The increase Hopewell Borough saw in the school tax levy “was due to the ratable change,” she said. “We’re going to be putting a letter up on the website, hopefully, sometime before the end of the week, explaining this.”
A big reason why the annual general fund increase was less than 1 percent, Ms. Wolff said, was because the board voted unanimously last year to move away from the state employee health benefits program and enroll all Hopewell Valley Regional School District employees in Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield health-care plans.
Because Horizon was able to provide an 18-month rate lock, meaning premium payments would not increase for a year and a half for either the school district or its employees, the district did not have to spend the $1.9 million it would have had it stuck with the state program, according to Robert Colavita, the school district business administrator.
“We’re very concerned about our spending,” Ms. Wolff said.
Find Ms. Wolff’s PowerPoint presentation at: http://www.boarddocs.com/nj/hvrsd/Board.nsf/files/A2L6NX7FC592/$file/September%2021%2C%202015%20Board%20Presidents%20Report.pdf
Hopewell Valley Regional School District website is at hvrsd.org. 