Property owners in Greater Latrobe School District will see a 1-mill increase in real estate taxes as the school board on Tuesday approved a final operating budget for the 2021-22 school year.
The final budget includes $57,752,938 in expenditures for the district in upcoming school year and revenues of $57,407,938.
Last week, GLSD Business Administrator Dan Watson presented to the school board a proposed final budget with no significant changes from the preliminary budget approved for public display last month.
The proposed final budget calls for the millage rate to increase from 84 to 85 mills for the 2021-22 school year to help offset a shortfall of $345,000 between revenues and expenditures. A 1-mill increase in the property tax rate would raise the average homeowner’s tax bill by $27 per year, according to Watson.
It has now been five consecutive years that Greater Latrobe levied a millage rate increase in the district.
Last year, the school board approved a $57,085,874 budget that included a 1.75-mill tax increase, bringing the real estate tax rate in the district to 84 mills.
The 2019-20 budget adoption included a 1-mill tax increase, and the millage rate increased by a half mill the prior year. There was a 1.75-mill tax increase in the 2017-18 budget a year after the district held the line on taxes for the 2016-17 budget.
Last week, Watson said GLSD’s millage rate of 84 ranked the district fourth-lowest among the 17 public school districts in Westmoreland County. He added that contributions to the Public School Employees’ Retirement System (PSERS) pension fund could have called for a much higher tax increase, but the district cut in one areas to keep the increase at one mill.
While overall revenue for the 2021-22 budget is expected to increase by $322,065 (0.56%) compared to 2020-21, according to Watson, the increase will be outpaced by rising expenses.
Expenditures are budgeted to see a sharper hike — increasing by $667,065, or 1.17% — fueled mostly by increases to the district’s costs for salaries and benefits, especially its required PSERS contributions.
Watson previously said building and department budget expenditures were reduced by $276,840 (1.61%) for the 2021-22 budget after being slashed by more than $800,000 in the 2020-21 budget.
Additionally, $606,892 of the increase in expenditures can be attributed to salaries and benefits for the district’s more than 400 employees, according to Watson. Of that increase, a 3.59% increase in PSERS contributions mandated by the state represents an increase of $302,786 in expenditures for the district.
Watson last week also noted that from the 2009-10 school year to the 2019-20 school year, the district’s actual expenditures, excluding PSERS contributions, increased by a total of $2,033,166 (4.31%), an average increase of $203,316 or 0.43% per year.
During that same 10-year timeframe, the district’s PSERS contributions ballooned by $7,001,624 (687%), Watson said.
Jessica Pellegrino was a top candidate when the Greater Latrobe School Board hired a new principal at the district’s Mountain View Elementary School last year.
While the board ultimately chose Lindsay Scarpo for the job, Pellegrino remained on staff as a social studies teacher at Greater Latrobe Senior High School.
On Tuesday, the board accepted Scarpo’s resignation and assigned Chad Krehlik, assistant senior high principal, as her replacement. The board also moved to appoint Pellegrino as Krehlik’s replacement. Pellegrino will earn a salary of $80,000.
All moves are effective July 1.
“Mrs. Pellegrino actually went through the interview process when we hired Mrs. Scarpo and came out extremely highly ranked,” said said Superintendent Georgia Teppert. “But at that point in time … we (felt) with her not having any administrative experience to run a building on her own would be tough.”
Now, Pellegrino will step into a role as assistant senior high principal.
“I just wanted to thank everybody for this opportunity,” she said. “I’m really looking forward to serving our students, parents and teachers at the high school in a greater capacity.”
Scarpo, a Hempfield Area High School graduate, was hired last week as principal of the district’s West Point Elementary School. Krehlik, her replacement at Mountain View Elementary School, will maintain his current salary.
“We’re very excited to have Mr. Krehlik at the elementary school at Mountain View,” Teppert said.
“Mr. Krehlik has been with us for 15 years now. He actually was one of my assistants when I was high school principal. I know he will do a fabulous job.”
The board also approved Krehlik as the district’s transportation liaison with a $4,000 stipend for the 2021-22 school year. That position was previously held by current athletic director Mark Mears — who is set to retire Aug. 1.
Teppert announced that Tuesday would be Mears’ final school board meeting as there is no meeting in July.
“He has dedicated over 30 years to the school district as a teacher, as a mentor, athletic director and coach, and we just can’t thank you enough for not only your service, but also your leadership and friendship,” Teppert said. “We wish you the best of luck. I know you’ll still be around coaching and in and out of our building.”
Mears, who has served the district for 31 years, will turn 55 on Aug. 5.
He was previously a learning support teacher within the district before being hired into an administrative role as the director of Child Accounting and Transportation in July 2007. In March 2010, Mears was tabbed to fill a consolidated role of athletic director and director of transportation during an administration re-alignment shakeup.
“Thank you to everyone; it’s been a great career,” Mears said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’ve worked with so many good people, so many board members. The kids from Latrobe truly are blessed and the future is bright.”
The board in April approved appointing assistant athletic director Zachary Heide as the district’s next athletic director, effective July 1 at a starting salary of $65,000. He was initially hired by GLSD as an in-school suspension supervisor in 2016 before becoming a substitute teacher for the district. He has been employed in the school district’s athletic department for the past four years, first as an athletic secretary and later as assistant athletic director.
Also Tuesday, three new teachers were approved by the board including:
“This is an exciting time of the year as we welcome new employees to our district,” Teppert said. “...We look forward to working with you.”
In other business, the board approved the Updated Phased School Opening Health and Safety Plan for the 2020-21 school year and authorized administration to submit the plan to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) and post publicly on the district’s website.
Updates to the district’s Continuity of Education Plan for the 2020-21 school year were also approved which include:
Additionally, all students are expected to attend the full-time brick and mortar (face-to-face instruction) setting for the upcoming 2021-22 school year.
“This is for summer school. That’s why we did it,” Teppert said of the approved Continuity of Education Plan. “This could change for fall. We have students in the building now through July so we had to update it to reflect the latest recommendations and guidelines.”
Summer programs include summer credit recovery, summer school instruction, STEM-tacular Camp, skill remediation and extended school year.
The board also voted to authorize the 2021 homestead/farmstead exclusion and re-enact Act 511 and per capita taxes for the 2021-22 school year, as well as insurance renewals for the 2021-22 school year.
Under the homestead/farmstead exclusion, PDE will pay the district $754,403.69 for the 2021-22 school year as a property tax reduction allocation fund by gambling tax funds.
Also on Tuesday, the board approved:
After several months of angling from Westmoreland County commissioners to open the restaurant lease at Arnold Palmer Regional Airport to interested outside parties, the county’s airport authority is sticking with a familiar name.
The Westmoreland County Airport Authority board, via a 7-2 vote, approved a new lease Tuesday with DeNunzio’s Italian Chophouse, located on the upper floor of the Unity Township airport’s terminal building. Board members Gary Beck and Mark Gera each cast dissenting votes; Beck thought it “would be in the best interest of the taxpayers if (the lease was) opened up.”
Before voting on the new lease, commissioner Gina Cerilli Thrasher requested that the authority properly advertise bids and extend the deadline on a decision, in order to consider several revenue-generating suggestions proposed by county leaders.
Commissioner Doug Chew, who attended the meeting by phone, expressed disappointment that the authority board failed to meet with commissioners over the past month to discuss the restaurant lease.
“Government functions best when it’s operation is transparent to the public and I feel an open dialogue over the last four weeks would’ve gone a long way toward easing tensions on both sides,” he said.
“I’m also surprised by how the board manages the airport; the absence of established bidding and purchasing processes is, at best, alarming.”
Chew, however, praised the board for making what he termed “limited responses” to a proposed restaurant contract he viewed in May, including a reduction in the lease term and an increase in rent.
According to the authority, the approved lease is $7,447.50 per month ($89,730 per year), along with a $3,400 per month utility contribution and a total of $1,250 per month for a snack bar and use of a banquet room.
Authority solicitor Dan Hewitt said the restaurant lease could cover up to 15 years, with an initial five-year term and a pair of five-year options, the latter of which will require authority board approval. Hewitt said previously that DeNunzio’s is paying roughly $2,000 per month for rent and the same amount for utilities under the existing contract.
Earlier in the meeting, Chew and Thrasher suggested a number of ideas they hoped the board would consider before approving the lease. The suggestions included making the airport authority the exclusive seller of bottled water, soft drinks and packaged snacks at the facility, with an employee selling the items or making the products available through authority vending machines.
The commissioners estimated that if one airport passenger bought a $3 bottled water, it could potentially generate around $750,000 per year. One authority board member noted that he had never purchased water on a Spirit Airlines flight.
The commissioners also proposed to allowing the restaurant vendor to sell alcohol, specialty coffee drinks and hot meals while paying a monthly fee. And if the restaurant vendor continued to sell food items, the airport authority would receive 50% of snack bar profits, per the commissioners’ suggestion.
County officials also suggested charging a 2% facility fee on each check at the airport restaurant, similar to what is being done at Live! Casino Pittsburgh at the Westmoreland Mall, along with the same facility fee for using the airport’s banquet room. Commissioners also suggested to give the airport authority exclusive rights to sell bottled water and soft drinks at the county airshow.
As part of the new lease, DeNunzio’s will not have exclusive rights to airport food sales, the authority noted.
On several occasions Tuesday, Thrasher pushed the idea of having the authority run the snack bar and operate the airport’s vending machines.
“I think vending machines are pretty simple. You have someone go and fill them up,” she said.
Some board members strongly pushed against that idea, with authority executive director Gabe Monzo adding that authority has long focused on airport operations and isn’t involved in dealings pertaining to the restaurant or snack bar areas.
Added authority board member Ed Kilkeary, who operates LJ Aviation at the airport: “I sure as hell would rather see people plowing the runway than filling vending machines when I’m landing at 140 knots. .... We’re talking about safety, not someone getting a bottle of water.”
Monzo became emotional during Tuesday’s meeting when discussing the efforts of the approximately 200 to 300 people who work at the airport. He specifically praised airport workers and volunteers who assisted with last month’s weather-affected Shop ‘n Save Westmoreland County Airshow.
“In the middle of Sunday, between the raindrops and Spirit landing, F-22 taxiing out and the Blue Angels starting their engines, it was probably one of the proudest moments I’ve spent here. I saw our guys doing their job and doing it professionally,” he said, fighting back tears.
After the meeting, Monzo admitted that he’s “been known to wear it on my sleeve. Everyone here works their heart out for this airport and it shows, from the top pilots to the janitors — everybody gives a (expletive) and that’s an important thing. They all care. That’s a real feather in the county’s cap.”
Doug Griffin, a local resident, senior business executive and longtime general aviation pilot, said he has been flying to the Palmer airport for more than 35 years and cited the strength of the facility and its popular eating establishment.
“You have a truly excellent airport here,” he said. “It is a top 10, if not 5, general aviation airport. Having lived in 14 states and two foreign countries, I think I’m pretty well qualified to make that statement.”
“You can put a Starbucks in that property and probably get more rent, but that does not help this airport, it does not help LJ (Aviation), it does not help Vee Neal, it does not help Spirit,” he said before the vote, noting that DeNunzio’s earns high ratings among aviation industry publications and organizations. “This airport garners national attention in a very favorable way — let’s not mess it up. ... DeNunzio’s drives traffic for this airport. Help your airport business. This decision impacts more than how much rent you’ll get.”
Authority member Don Rossi said he personally paid for an independent consultant for advice on the restaurant lease matter, who recommended the airport stay with DeNunzio’s unless they wanted to put additional resources into potentially enticing a five-star restaurant.
“They would invest, but we’d have to give up an awful lot,” Rossi said of the potential to attract one of those types of restaurants.
When pressed by Thrasher for prices offered by other interested parties, Rossi noted there were indications that those establishments were willing to work with the airport at “any cost.” He couldn’t provide additional information about the proposals to commissioners during Tuesday’s meeting.
“At any cost? Shouldn’t you find out what those numbers are so DeNunzio’s can pay that same amount?” Thrasher said in response. “Quite frankly, I understand you want DeNunzio’s as the restaurant, and that is fine, but let’s get top dollar for that restaurant space.”
When asked by an authority member, Hewitt on Tuesday revealed that the other interested parties in the lease included Rizzo’s Malabar Inn in Crabtree, IronRock Tap House in Hempfield Township and a Johnstown-based group.
Other than not going through a proper bidding process with other interested parties, Thrasher did not favor including utilities with the restaurant’s rent along with authority’s lease terms for square footage, which was described at approximately $5 per square foot by authority members Tuesday. She said the county pays $6.50 per square foot to rent storage space.
Thrasher said she hoped for a meeting with authority members within the past month, adding that she believed the board had “made up its mind” about the restaurant lease in advance of Tuesday’s vote.
She also claimed an authority member, in response to her involvement in the lease talks, told her to “shut up and stay home.” Thrasher declined to identify which board member allegedly made the comment.
“A reminder that this is 2021,” Thrasher said during the meeting. “If you tell a woman to shut up and stay home, they’re doing to do the exact opposite. My eyes are wide open. We’ve obviously hit a nerve and Commissioner Chew and I are going to be watching every single thing this airport authority does going forward.”
After the meeting, Thrasher admitted that she has “lost confidence in the board, and that will be reflected when it comes time to reappoint individuals.”
Monzo noted that DeNunzio’s has viewed the new lease terms and is expected to sign the agreement, which will go into effect when restaurant owner Ron DeNunzio puts pen to paper. The existing lease is slated to expire next spring.
In April, authority board chairman Paul Puleo said the property committee planned to put together a request for proposals to lease the restaurant space.
Hewitt said the current restaurant lease dates back to 1995 and has been extended several times, with the current extension a five-year term. The airport dining venue operated as Jimmie Monzo’s Blue Angel from 1977 to 2003, when it was renamed The Beacon, according to Bulletin archives. The lease was transferred to DeNunzio’s in 2004, Hewitt added.
DeNunzio’s moved into the airport long before it became a regional destination and a major economic driver. Spirit Airlines began commercial flights at the facility in February 2011 and according to a 2019 study by the state Bureau of Aviation, the airport boosts the local economy by $226 million annually.
The commissioners emphasized Tuesday that county taxpayers contribute approximately $2.7 million per year to the airport authority.
DeNunzio’s noted in an online statement this spring that when “we negotiated our current lease in 2004, we invested significantly in the airport by putting roughly $1 million of our own money into capital improvements at the airport.” Before Tuesday’s vote, the authority added that all items in the popular banquet room, including the chandeliers, are property of the restaurant.
“We appreciate the support that the county and the commissioners have given us,” Puleo said. ... “I don’t disagree that we have to try to generate as much revenue as possible. But if there are things that have been good, my thinking is, ‘Don’t change them. Let’s try to keep them and just enhance them.’”
“The lease that he had was the lease he stepped into, so you can’t change the lease,” Puleo said of DeNunzio’s. “Now that there’s time to change the lease, I think it’s a fair market price and we went with the individual who has been here with us.”
Puleo also noted that authority will look into generating extra revenue through leasing airport space; he said a potential gas station could be an avenue airport officials explore in the future.
“The way we make money is the leasing,” he said. “We’re going to do some outreach.”
Also discussed at the meeting: