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Shapiro's campaign promises run into reality

Plus, how much is 1 mil worth?

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This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

December 7, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Campaign promises, ballot ruling, government gridlock, property taxes, extreme hunger, big plastic, religious rights, and resurrected rail.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro's campaign last year relied heavily on his deal-making and coalition-building reputation.

But his first year in office shows that fulfilling those campaign promises was tougher than making them, according to a Spotlight PA analysis of Shapiro's campaign pledges.

His promises concerning reducing fees and taxes and creating an indigent defense fund can't be fulfilled until lawmakers approve a code bill.

Other pledges around the environment, gun control, and voting rights are stuck in the state Senate or don't have related legislation under consideration.

Also this week: Spotlight PA reporting saved Allegheny County $479,000 in opioid settlement payout penalties; we sued the Penn State Board of Trustees over alleged violations of Pennsylvania's open meeting laws; and we joined up with Votebeat to report on the confusion and complications that followed a recent court ruling on undated mail ballots.

And finally, new rules for the state House were supposed to make government more productive and bipartisan. But good-government advocates and Republicans say it didn't work out that way.


"As always, it is not good if some counties are doing stuff one way and others are doing it another way."

—Jeff Greenburg, a senior advisor on election administration for the Philadelphia-based nonprofit Committee of Seventy who previously ran elections in Mercer County, on how a federal court ruling coming down during the vote certification process is causing issues for counties.

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How much 1 mil is worth is wildly variable

Property taxes are the lifeblood of municipal revenue and services in Pennsylvania, but depending on when a county last assessed its property values, local governments can overflow with cash or be strapped for it.

To calculate property taxes, municipalities use a unit called a "mil" — one dollar for every $1,000 of the assessed value of a property. If a municipality has a property tax rate of 1 mil and the assessed value of a house is $100,000, the owner will pay $100 in property taxes. 

But the assessed value of properties does not always reflect their true market value, and how reliable that figure is heavily depends on how recently a county performed a reassessment.

A county that last updated its property values 60 years ago will have much lower property values than a county that performed a reassessment in the past five years. While 1 mil will always mean $1 of every $1,000 in assessed property value, the worth of that 1 mil can be quite different all over the state as a result.

Consider a stark contrast: In Montgomery County’s Lower Merion Township, 1 mil nets more than $7.7 million in revenue, while in Shippensburg Borough, which straddles the line between Franklin and Cumberland Counties, 1 mil amounts to just below $14,000 in revenue. That’s according to figures compiled by Jeffrey Stonehill, manager for the Borough of Chambersburg.

Sam Wiser, a municipal lawyer for the firm Salzmann Hughes, recently spoke with Spotlight PA about what causes this disparity.

What role does the mil play in local government?

Each municipal code ties a municipality’s ability to tax real estate to millage values, and there are different millage limits. 

For boroughs and first class townships, the limit is 30 mils. If the municipality has a police department, the police department normally consumes all or the vast majority of the general millage rate. “It’s a mission critical revenue source for emergency services,” Wiser told Spotlight PA.

There are other sources for revenue in a municipality. Local governments are authorized to impose an earned income tax and they also receive a realty transfer tax. The latter is levied when a property is sold: 1% goes to the commonwealth and 1% goes to the municipality. Most governmental functions, like fire response, code enforcement, community development, are funded through these two taxes — which becomes an enormous challenge when the economy is not healthy, Wiser said.

Fire service funding is especially challenged because it is limited to 3 mils of tax under the borough code and both township codes. There’s also a cap of half a mil for ambulance, rescue, and other emergency services.

What’s in a mil?

The jarring difference in the monetary value of a mil across municipalities stems from the mil being based on the county assessed value of a property. 

“Those county assessments are not uniform across the commonwealth,” Wiser said. “They actually vary tremendously.”

Wiser pointed to Franklin County. It has one of the oldest assessments in the commonwealth, using property values from 1961. Meanwhile, neighboring Cumberland County last conducted an assessment in 2011. As a result, Shippensburg Borough’s general millage rate is almost 27 mils in Franklin County, but just over 2 mils in Cumberland County.

While the Pennsylvania Constitution requires taxes to be uniform and assessments to be uniform, it doesn’t mandate when assessments must be done. Wiser said a number of legal challenges brought against several counties whose assessments were out of date were “generally successful.”

 Min Xian, Spotlight PA

🏆 NEXT QUESTION: Did you stay on top of the news this week? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Sworn in on banned books, Fetterman’s troll target, and an Amtrak revival.
This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaEXTREME DEMAND: Pennsylvania food banks say demand is reaching "catastrophic" levels as donations continue to decline. PennLive found some midstate food banks reporting double the demand from last year. “It’s the highest ever, including comparing it back to the pandemic when we thought we were at a peak that would never be exceeded,” said Central Pennsylvania Food Bank Director Joe Arthur.

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaBIG PLASTIC: Natural gas fracked in states like Pennsylvania is feeding a plastics manufacturing boom, creating precursors used in the process, like vinyl chloride, and raising East Palestine-related public safety concerns. One anti-plastics advocate told Inside Climate News people aren't clamoring for more of it — a glut of natural gas simply has energy companies looking for other ways to turn a profit.

This week's third top news story in Pennsylvania'RELIGIOUS RIGHTS': The legal fight over a planned supervised drug consumption site in Philadelphia returned to court this week as backers look to keep the case alive and federal authorities look to quash it. The nonprofit behind the plan, Safehouse, is arguing that it has a religious right to care for people who use drugs, WHYY reports. The U.S. Department of Justice argues Safehouse isn't a registered religious entity.

NEW MAJORITY: The Central Bucks School Board's new Democratic majority immediately got to work this week dismantling some of the former GOP majority’s most controversial actions. The Inquirer (paywall) says that includes bans on Pride flags, “sexualized content” in books, and transgender athletes. The new solicitor will also attempt to whittle down a $700,000 payout to the former superintendent.

HOUSE SCHEDULE: Spotlight PA's Stephen Caruso reports the state House has set its schedule for the first half of 2024 and won't have a full voting session until March 18. Caruso notes the three-month gap roughly lines up with a Democratic vacancy in the chamber, tying the House at 101-101 after state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks) steps down — likely on Dec. 15 — to become a district judge. 

» KFF HEALTH NEWS: Pa. PFAS threshold higher than other states

» POCONO RECORDGrants help resurrect rail from Scranton to NYC

» THE INQUIRER: Meet Pennsylvania’s highest-paid state employee

» WPXI: Pittsburgh losing more police officers than it's adding

» WTAJ: Bedford County man arrested for threats on Gov. Shapiro

Support Spotlight PA's investigative journalism for Pennsylvania and for a limited time, your gift will be DOUBLED.
Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org.

LETTER WRITING (Case No. 233): What seven-letter word has all five vowels and a "q" in it? 
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Four sisters, three brothers. (Find last week's clue here.) 

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