WEST MEAD TOWNSHIP — Supervisors unanimously approved a preliminary 2021 budget that includes no tax increase at their monthly study session Tuesday. Final approval of the budget is expected to come during the board’s Dec. 8 meeting.

Approval of the $1.31 million general fund budget came after more than 90 minutes of back-and-forth discussion, much of it focused on the question of raising taxes — and whether the township could afford not to raise taxes for the first time since 2011.

On one side of the discussion, Chairman Don Bovard repeatedly emphasized his opposition to raising the township’s real estate tax rate of 4.25 mills.

“I’m not in favor of a tax increase, especially this year,” he said in a reference to the widespread economic impact of coronavirus mitigation efforts.

On the other side, Supervisor John Shartle, who also serves as the township’s roadmaster, repeatedly emphasized the potential cost of not raising taxes.

“I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and watch this township go backwards,” he said.

“Sometimes I think we should have been doing it all along,” Shartle added, referring to incremental increases in the millage rate. “Because we didn’t raise taxes didn’t stop them from raising the cost of fuel, or engine oil, or brakes, or brake chambers, or all the stuff we need to maintain these trucks. The labor rates don’t go down.”

In the middle, Supervisor Michael Jordan juxtaposed big-ticket expenses on the near horizon, such as a new backhoe expected to cost about $120,000, and the difficulty of asking residents to pay more when many are likely affected by the economic effects of the pandemic.

“It’s not that I’m in favor of raising taxes, it’s just how far do we let it go?” Jordan asked. “I don’t think we’re doing ourselves any favors putting it off.”

By the end of the evening, however, Jordan’s skepticism tilted against the notion of an increase.

“My gut’s telling we should raise it, but I can’t raise taxes on people this year,” he added. “There’s people hurting already. I don’t want to be the one to give them the boot off the edge of the bridge.”

Secretary-treasurer Jill Dunlap presented the three men with three preliminary budget proposals: the no-increase version that was approved, another with an increase of 0.75 mills, and a third that included a 1-mill increase.

Under the current rate of 4.25 mills, the owner of a home assessed at the township’s median assessed value of $29,000 pays real estate taxes of $123.25 each year. A 1-mill increase would bring the annual payment up to $152.25 each year — $29 more than they pay currently.

Under the no-tax increase budget that was approved, expenditures would decrease by $59,000 from the 2020 budget and would leave $365 in the township’s general fund. Spending for police, parks, employee benefits and general administration is set to be lower than last year while spending on equipment and roads will increase from $411,000 to $449,000.

Dunlap suggested that residents might be more willing to accept an increase in that range than a cut to services they have come to expect.

“I don’t want to sound like it’s so minimal,” she said of an annual increase ranging from $20 to $30. “There’s a lot of people (for whom) that would be acceptable to having their taxes raised, especially when they find out how little it is.”

For an example, Dunlap pointed to West Mead resident John Mottillo, who had been present at the beginning of the meeting as a township representative on the Meadville Area Recreation Authority. When supervisors turned the subject from Mottillo’s update on the authority to the possibility of taxes being raised, Mottillo was receptive to the idea.

“I think it’s a good idea for what we pay,” Mottillo said. When residents receive their property tax bill detailing what they owe to the county, the school district and the township, he said, “You kind of chuckle” at the amount owed to the township.

“If you raise taxes a little,” he continued, “I don’t think you’d have a war on your hands — depends on when you guys are up for reelection.”

Bovard was unpersuaded by the endorsement of an increase from a resident, saying the township should keep taxes low in order to attract businesses and additional residents, particularly those living next door in the city of Meadville.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a mass exodus,” Bovard said of the prospect of migration from the city to the township, “but I think you’re going to see some people fleeing the city.”

In the meantime, Bovard said, West Mead’s budget has fared better than might have been expected through the pandemic. At the end of October, he said, the township had brought in nearly 90 percent of the revenue it expected for the year and had spent less than 80 percent of what had been budgeted.

“We’re doing better than we probably should be,” he said. “That’s why I’m not in favor of raising taxes.”

Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at mcrowley@meadvilletribune.com.

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