The elephant in the official Newtown Township Citizen Survey, which closed on July9, 2020, is Question 15: "Would you be willing to pay higher Township taxes for increased services?"
More than 60% of general funds revenue comes from Earned Income Tax (EIT). In light of the projected loss of EIT revenue due to COVID-19, the wording of Question 15 might better be "Would you be willing to pay higher Township taxes to prevent cutbacks in current services?"
Low Property Taxes
It should be noted that Newtown Township has one of the lowest property taxes in the area. The Township's 4.5 mill tax amounts to $196.20 yearly town tax on a home with a market value of $400,000 and an assessed value of $43,600 (the approximate average home market/assessed value in Newtown Township in 2018). None of the tax money collected is deposited in the General Fund, which pays salaries of the Police, Public Works, EMS and other township departments as well as other expenses such as legal fees, etc.
Here's how your 4.5 RE tax millage is allocated:
- 2.625 Mills go to debt servicing, which includes paying off loans for increased road repairs and the town building mortgage
- 0.875 Mill goes to fire protection services (in support of the Newtown Fire Association volunteer fire department)
- 0.55 Mill goes to fire hydrant maintenance
- 0.45 Mill goes to rescue squad purposes (Newtown Ambulance Squad)
Impact of COVID-19
At the June 10, 2020, Newtown Board of Supervisors Zoom meeting, Dan Connelly of ESI Solutions, Inc. presented an "interim report" regarding the financial impact of COVID-19 on the 2020 budget and beyond. ESI was hired to develop a 5-year budget plan, but in the wake of COVID-19, that seemed less urgent than accessing the Township's financial health and projecting the budget balance by the end of the year assuming shortfalls in tax and other revenue.
The following figures are slides that were part of a presentation made by ESI presentation:
Figure 1: This chart shows the Township's General Fund end-of-year balance, which is decreasing every year due to deficit spending. This balance, which is designed to pay for unanticipated expenses, has been used over the past several years to cover the deficit; i.e., budgeting for more expenses than anticipated income. Without "corrective actions" shown in See Figure 2, the balance at the end of 2020 is anticipated to fall well below the mandated 8% minimum.
Figure 2: Possible "Corrective Actions" anticipated to ensure a 2020 general fund balance of 8% (see Figure 1). NOTE: $290,000 was taken out the 2020 road program already, which means only 2 miles of roads will be repaved this year v.s. the planned 5 miles before COVID19 (read "Summary of April 22, 2020, Newtown Board of Supervisors Meeting").
ESI will present a review of the results of the survey at a future Board of Supervisors meeting.Read More...
Posted on 09 Jul 2020, 13:47 - Category: Taxes
According to the 2017 Financial Report and Audit, Newtown Township collected $9,993,697 of tax revenue that year primarily from three sources: (1) Earned Income Tax (EIT Definition), (2) Real Estate Transfer Tax Definition, and (3) Real Property Tax Definition. In addition, the town collected $460,431 in Local Services Tax (LST Definition) in 2017.
In this post, I focus on the first two taxes, which are “volatile” in the sense that they depend on the state of the economy and the actions of neighboring townships that are beyond the control of Newtown planners.
I first learned about the volatility of these taxes during the 2018 Budget Presentation meeting in October, 2017, when the Township Manger discussed the issue (view the video of his remarks here).
Earned Income Tax
Resident and non-resident EITs account for about 79% of Newtown’s total tax revenue (see Figure 1) and 55% of the Township’s yearly TOTAL revenue from all sources. As I reported in the October 9, 2018, issue of Newtown News Update, Newtown’s financial situation, according to our auditors, is stable as long as the EIT revenue remains stable (read “All’s Well in the Garden as Long As…”). It is prudent, in my opinion, to examine the data for the past several years to determine if the trend verifies EIT revenue will remain “stable” in the future.
According to data from the 2017 Financial Report and Audit, there was a substantial increase in total EIT in 2017 compare to 2016 primarily due to better economic conditions with more people employed and/or making more money (see Figure 2).
But can we expect that trend to continue? Compared to the high of about $8.37 million in 2013, the 2017 EIT revenue represents a 6% DECREASE. This was only partially due to an “unusually high” Delinquent Residential EIT Collection of $320,519.30.
According to the Manager’s Budget Letter submitted to the Board of Supervisors (BOS) at the October 15, 2018, Budget Presentation, the estimated total EIT collected by the end of 2018 will be $ 6.938 million – a decrease of 12% compared to 2017. The 2019 Propose Budget estimates a 3% increase in total EIT compared to 2018; i.e., $ 7,120,000, which is still 3% below the average of $ 7,320,692 for period of 2013 through 2018.
It is obvious from Figure 2 that EIT is a “volatile” source of revenue for the Township and the trend is downward.
Aside from the impact of general economic conditions, the Town’s EIT revenue can be impacted by businesses moving out of town and by decisions of neighboring towns. For example, Newtown lost approximately $650,000 in EIT plus an additional loss of $44,000 in Local Services Taxes when Lockheed-Martin left town. Add to that the loss of $198,000 when Middletown Township implemented an EIT and a loss of $202,376 when Bensalem did the same and the result is a total loss of $1.1 million.
Real Estate Transfer Tax
Another “volatile” source of tax revenue is the Real Estate Transfer Tax, which is a 1% tax on all home and land sales in the Township. This tax is split between the Township and the Council Rock School District. Newtown’s 2017 share of real estate transfer tax collections totaled $943,172. That beats the five-year (2013-2017) average. However, 2017 represents the first year since 2013 that the final collection was less than the previous year (see Figure 3).
According to the Manager’s Unaudited Discussion & Analysis section of the 2017 Audit Report, “2018 may be concerning as the year to date [transfer tax collection] totals are running far below where we would expect them to be. Factors such as the long and harsh winter and rising interest rates may be the driving factor behind decreased collections.”
At the October 15, 2018, 2019 Budget Presentation, I asked the Township Manger about these trends. For example, the 2019 budget estimates $800,000 in real estate transfer taxes (see Figure 3). That’s a decrease of $125,000 from what was budgeted in 2018 but somewhat higher than the $741,775 that is estimated for the actual transfer tax that will be collected by the end of 2018.
Interest rates are rising, which may mean a drop in home sales or a longer time for homes to remain on the market, which can impact collections in 2019. In light of that, I wondered why township officials think we will collect more transfer tax in 2019 than in 2018? For the answer to that question, view the video at the end of this post.
Transfer Tax revenue could go a long way to pay for items in the budget without raising taxes – at least in the short term. The problem is that Newtown is reaching a point where there are less and less plots of land that can be developed for high-density housing unless zoning ordinances are changed. One example is the proposed development proposed by Toll Brothers. The BOS recently was presented a sketch plan that would require a change in the Conservation Management (CM) zoning for that project to move forward (read “Toll Brothers Twining Bridge Road Proposal”).
General Fund Balance
A good indicator of the financial health of a township is the balance remaining in the General Fund Definition at the end of the year. This is considered a “reserve fund” that can be used to pay for unanticipated expenses or shortfalls in revenue from taxes such as EIT and Transfer Tax.
The Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Best Practice recommends, at a minimum, that general-purpose governments, regardless of size, maintain unrestricted fund balance in their general fund of no less than two months (16 percent) of regular general fund operating revenues or regular general fund operating expenditures. Meanwhile, Jack Brod, chair of the Finance Committee, in a recent report to the BOS, suggested the “safe harbor” for a General Fund balance should be 30-40% of the operating budget (view video: “Newtown Township Finance Committee Report”).
Newtown’s General Fund balance is projected to be $2,537,544 by the end of 2018 (21% of the $11.93 million budgeted expenditure for 2018). That’s a reduction of $605,912 from the starting balance of $3,143,456. The 2019 budget, meanwhile, projects a balance of $1,286,357 by the end of 2019, which would be a 49.4% reduction compared to 2018 and only 10% of the projected operating budget of about $12.4 million!
For clarification, I asked the township officials what they thought was an acceptable safe harbor number and the impact on future financing opportunities. For the answer, view the video below:Read More...
Posted on 22 Oct 2018, 01:43 - Category: Taxes
Former Newtown Township Supervisor Gerry Couch engaged in a despicable misrepresentation of the facts in order to undermine the trust in and respect for the new Board of Supervisors!
In a letter to the editor published in the February 5, 2018, issue of the Bucks Courier Times (BCCT), former Newtown Township Supervisor Gerry Couch accused Democrats on the current Board of Supervisors – yours truly included – of raising taxes by $1 million and claimed that “taxes are going up $168 for [the] average household” (see letter shown below).
First of all, Newtown is NOT “poised for a $1 million dollar tax increase” as Mr. Couch claims. Oh, yes, I forgot. According to the BCCT editors, the mistake was theirs. “Basically, all of our articles get looked over by an out-of-office copy desk,” a source inside the paper told me, “and in this case, someone unfamiliar with municipal government mistook "1-mill" for ‘$1 million’ and changed Mr. Couch's original letter before it went online.”
Really?! I find that hard to believe. Whatever!
The letter goes on to mention that taxes are “going up $168” for the average household. Only the owner of a house valued at $1.68 Million will see Newtown taxes “go up” $168 in 2018. As for the average Joe like me, whose house is valued at $340,000, the tax will “go up” $34! I could save two to six times that by switching to a different trash pickup company!
This is a particularly telling “mistake” because Mr. Couch is a financial planner and was the Assistant Treasurer while on the Board of Supervisors. So you would think he knows how to transform a 1-mill tax increase into a dollar amount for the average household.
The editors of BCCT should be ashamed of themselves to allow such an obviously fake number to be published. This "fake fact" should have been known to be incorrect based on a previously published article that included the correct data. This sloppy journalism has had consequences. It undermines the trust in and support of our local government, which has already received many phone calls from residents.
But the main culprite here is Mr. Couch, who I believe has engaged in a despicable misrepresentation of the facts. Maybe, however, Mr. Couch is not a purveyor of “fake facts” but simply does not know how to do grade school math. I don’t know which is worse.
The Courier Times Prints Two Corrections
In what must be a first, the Courier Times printed two corrections regarding this letter on two consecutive days! Talk about closing the barn door after the cows have left!
Posted on 07 Feb 2018, 07:35 - Category: Taxes
Ferguson Talks About Taxes at the January 10, 2018 BOS Meeting
For the benefit of "newbie" Township Supervisors John Mack and Linda Bobrin, Town Manager Kurt Ferguson discussed the "volatile" nature of the taxes the town depends upon to meet its expenses.
To sum up: Ferguson suggested that Newtown is unique in that it does NOT have a property tax (see below) and the lion share of it’s revenue sources depend upon “volatile taxes.” These taxes include resident and non-resident Earned Income Taxes (EIT), which account for about 54% of the yearly revenue. These are “volatile” because people may lose jobs and other municipalities may enact their own EIT. That means that Newtown can lose the taxes collected from residents of those municipalities who work in Newtown. This would have a "devastating effect" on the Town’s financial stability and credit rating.
The Truth About “Real Estate” Taxes
What’s often quoted as “Real Estate” tax millage of 3.50 is actually composed of a 0.875 Fire Tax millage plus a 2.625 Debt Service millage. This income does NOT go into the General Fund to cover ordinary/general ongoing expenses. The former goes into the Fire Protection Fund, which pays for the Fire Chief’s salary, health insurance, etc., and contribution to the Newtown Fire Association. The latter goes toward paying off loans for road improvements, etc. Other towns have a property tax that pays for the general expenses of running and maintaining a town.
Posted on 11 Jan 2018, 01:38 - Category: Taxes
According to an analysis prublished in the Bucks County Courier Times this morning, more than half of Bucks towns will not raise taxes in 2018. However, that does not mean that these towns will not face a financial crisis down the road (see clip below). File this under "Don't ever believe a politician who says 'Read my lips. No new taxes!' or the equivalent."
Newtown Township may soon be added to the list. At a contentious public meeting on December 13, 2017, the Board of Supervisors debated whether to cut spending for essential services (again) or to approve the 2018 budget with new taxes to pay for Emergency Medical Services and Fire Hydrant Maintenance. In the end, they were unable to reach a consensus. Read "Newtown's Looming 2018 Budget Crisis."
According to the BCCT, perhaps a quarter of Bucks County towns have not seen a tax increase since 2013 (see the following table).
Note that Newtown Twp raised taxes by 1 mill in 2017 for debt service, which allowed the Township to borrow $1 million for roadway improvement every three years. If another tax increase is necessary down the road, at least that road is likely to be in good condition!Read More...
Posted on 18 Dec 2017, 01:16 - Category: Taxes