Dinniman tackles big issues at town hall meeting
● By J. Chambless
Sen. Andy Dinniman held a town hall meeting on July 29.
By John Chambless
State Sen. Andy Dinniman confronted issues large and small at a town hall meeting held on July 29 at the Avon Grove Intermediate School.
Speaking in front of a capacity crowd of various township officials and concerned residents, Dinniman addressed big-picture matters such as the state budget and development, along with questions from the audience that brought up more mundane mushroom farm odors and potholes. The formal meeting lasted two hours, and Dinniman cheerfully stayed longer to answer questions.
One of the hot-button issues on the agenda was property taxes, long a complaint for county residents – particularly those on a limited or fixed income. “In my decade in Harrisburg, this is the first time we have had a chance to get property tax reform done,” Dinniman told the crowd. “I'm not going to allow this chance to get away, and neither should you.”
In Pennsylvania, education funding comes from three main sources – property tax, income tax and sales tax. How to adjust the revenue from each of those sources is the focus of several proposals before the legislature. None of the proposals was included in the state budget plan in June, and Dinniman voted against it. Gov. Wolf vetoed the budget, so Dinniman is seizing the window of opportunity to get public input on the proposals.
“In Harrisburg, the trouble is that very few people are speaking in the interest of the people who are paying the taxes,” he said.
Gov. Wolf's proposal would offer $3.8 billion in property tax relief, based on the median income of households in each school district. Homeowners in southern Chester County would see reductions of about 44.65 percent in Avon Grove, 22.69 percent in Kennett, 34.74 percent in Octorara, 51.12 percent in Oxford and 17.05 percent in Unionville-Chadds Ford. Wolf's proposal calls for an increase in personal income tax to 3.7 percent and a sales and use tax increase to 6.6 percent.
The current state income tax is 3.07 percent, and the current sales and use tax is 6 percent.
The Republican proposal, vetoed by Wolf, would have continued yearly increases in property taxes and made no change to the income tax or sales tax.
Senate Bill 76 would eliminate the property tax entirely, and increase personal income tax to 4.34 percent and the sales tax to 7 percent. The bill would expand the sales and use tax to include new goods and services.
Under House Bill 504, which was passed by the House and is now in the Senate Finance Committee, there would be $4.9 billion in property tax relief, amounting to 40 to 60 percent reductions for all homeowners, and a $125 million expansion of the property tax and rent rebate program. Income tax would be raised to 3.7 percent, and sales tax to 7 percent.
Under the Democratic proposal, there would be $4.4 billion in property tax relief, with the taxes eliminated for 2 million homeowners, a reduction of $1,900 for the remaining 1.2 million homeowners, and a $500 rebate to an estimated 800,000 renters. Income tax would be increased to 3.86 percent, and sales tax to 6.6 percent.
Dinniman distributed questionnaires to everyone at the meeting, asking for their input on which proposal they would like to see. “It's time to stop all the posturing, stop all the games and get down to work,” Dinniman said of the budget talks. “We need to negotiate. That's what we're supposed to do,” he said as the crowd applauded.
Among other sources of revenue for education, Dinniman suggested cutting the salaries of school administrators and eliminating some positions. “There are 11 school districts in this county,” he said. “We can consolidate some things. We don't need to have 11 back offices, 11 solicitors, 11 superintendents.”
Other revenue sources proposed by Dinniman are a natural gas severance tax, a pipeline property tax, an end of the “Delaware loophole” that allows multi-state corporations to register in Delaware and avoid Pennsylvania taxes, and enacting some kind of pension reform.
“Companies like Mobil and Shell are making billions of dollars,” he said. “They're not going to be leaving Pennsylvania over a tax. It doesn't have to be the governor's proposed 5 percent tax, but we can compromise on a lower rate that still provides some much-needed funds.”
When it comes to the broad issue of development in southern Chester County, Dinniman took a dim view of Vista 2025, a plan that would redraw zones where development could take place, particularly along the Route 1 corridor.
“Southwest Chester County is one of the last bastions of open space in this county,” Dinniman said. “Development is a threat to maintaining a sense of place. Economic development is necessary, but it can be done the right way.”
Dinniman objected to how the Vista 2025 plan was put together by the Chester County Development Group and suddenly announced in January 2015 at a meeting at the Herr's corporate headquarters. Dinniman said the Vista map of development zones does not match the maps put together under the previous Landscapes 1 plan in 1992 and the Landscapes 2 plan, put together in 2009. “We need to go back and ask the residents what they'd like areas to look like,” he said. “If the county wants to change things for Vista, we need to consult the citizens and the county commissioners again.”
Dinniman fielded several questions from residents about Artesian Water and their plan to tap a reservoir in the Landenberg area and pump the water to Delaware. “Unfortunately, the law in Pennsylvania gives all the advantages to the utilities and very few to citizens,” Dinniman said. “And the process is so confusing that it's nearly impossible to get answers.”
The Artesian issue – which is being fought by a grassroots opposition group – “is not just a New Garden issue,” Dinniman said. “The aquifer goes into Little Britain Township, Franklin Township and London Grove as well.”
Dinniman has joined the effort against Artesian, saying that many homeowners who use wells in the area don't want public water and sewer installed because it would fuel development and housing construction. The major players in the standoff – the Public Utilities Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection – “don't talk to each other, which is preposterous,” Dinniman said. “I've put forth two bills that would force them to talk before they act, which seems rational,” he added as the crowd laughed and clapped. “But that's why it probably won't get passed.”
Franklin Township Board of Supervisors chairman John Auerbach was at the town hall meeting, and Dinniman asked him about his dealings with Eastern Shore. “They already have pipelines in the township, but they need more capacity so they're proposing a parallel pipe,” Auerbach explained. “The location is agreeable to most people in the township, although there are some historical issues. As a utility, they have the right to do what they want,” he added. “But Eastern Shore has been pretty good in working with the township.” The last major issue brought up at the meeting was the pipeline expansion plan of the Eastern Shore Natural Gas Company. The company is proposing to build a 16-inch wide pipeline through southern Chester County. The Delaware-based company already owns a right-of-way for its existing pipelines, and is seeking additional easements for facilities or temporary work spaces for construction along the pipelines.
Penn Township Board of Supervisors chairman Curtis Mason, however, addressed the crowd about what Eastern Shore is proposing in his township. Area residents received a letter from Eastern Shore, Mason said, but only had about two days to respond to the company. He also pointed out what he sees as safety concerns with the gas pipelines. The shut-off valves, he said, are five miles apart. The lines are buried “three to four feet underground,” he said. “You could dig them up with a shovel. One of the proposed routes goes straight through out new school complex in Penn. There are six stream crossings in our township.
“It's all about the money,” Mason said of the current Eastern Shore proposal. “There are two lines already, and this would be a third. We feel they should stick to the route they already have. I have gotten many concerned calls about it, but I have gotten no answers.
“At the end of the day, the gas goes to other states. It doesn't help us at all,” said Mason, who advised residents to work for a delay in the pipeline construction process so discussions can be held with the company.
“The only thing that will stop them is people,” Dinniman said. “Not money, not lawyers.” The company could use eminent domain to do what it wants, he said, “but if you hold them up and delay them, they will work with you. You have to organize and get out there, and they may be more receptive. But you live in a state with very few rights for citizens about water and pipelines.”
To contact Sen. Dinniman, email firstname.lastname@example.org, visit www.senatordinniman.com, or call 610-692-2112.
To contact Staff Writer John
Chambless, email email@example.com