Sears Closing

Sears in the Johnstown Galleria closed in August 2018.

Richland Township will raise taxes by 2 mills next year, a rare step driven by declining revenue and a ramped up effort to tackle stormwater issues that have plagued some residents for 15 years.

The increase will add up to a $47 increase for the average township property owner in 2020 – a 25 percent hike, albeit in a community where the average annual residential bill, at $177 yearly, is a fraction of most neighboring communities.

Now, the average bill will rise to approximately $224 a year, Township Chairman Robert Heffelfinger Jr. said.

“We spent a lot of time trying to figure out ways to avoid this – but when you’re down $600,000 in revenue, there’s not much you can do,” he said Tuesday during an interview inside the township office.

Over the past 27 years, Richland Township has only raised its real estate taxes once, in 2012, he noted.

Over the past four years, high profile tax appeals – most of them retailers such as Wal-Mart and the Galleria’s ownership – have successfully reduced the assessment values of their properties, in doing so, lowering their annual tax bills to the township, school and Cambria County, too.

Over the same span, the township has also watched struggling retailers such as Sears, Bon-Ton and Toys-R-Us close their doors, causing a ripple effect on several tax sources – the business privilege tax paid by company ownership, the earned income tax and real estate revenue in general, Heffelfinger said.

Earned income tax collection is down $110,000 from a year ago. The business privilege tax loss isn’t far behind, nearly $100,000, figures show.

Heffelfinger said total revenues – real estate included – are down $700,000 from 2016.

For comparison, the township collects approximately $200,000 from one mill of taxes.

“It’s frustrating,” said Public Works Director Rian Barker, who oversees a crew of eight people. “When you’re forced to react to a situation like this, you can’t be a proactive community. Everything you bring in (in terms of revenue) is spent on funding the basic needs for what you already provide.”

While the number of “Open” signs on commercial storefronts continues slipping, the number of police and fire calls is holding steady or increasing, Heffelfinger said, while expenses such as utilities and healthcare continue ticking upward.

The board’s decision to budget another $150,000 toward stormwater issues in 2020 was years in the making, following 15 years of vocal concerns by residents and a more than $100,000 study nearly five years ago to identify and prioritize trouble spots township-wide.

As budgeted, the township will dedicate up to $330,000 for stormwater in 2020, Heffelfinger said.

The township has millions of dollars in stormwater issues – well over $15 million, in Heffelfinger’s view – across Richland but the board has to start somewhere, he added.

“This is sort of a trial,” Heffelfinger said. “We’re going to pursue some projects this year and see if we can make a measurable impact. We’ll see what happens.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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