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Dozens protest tax cut in Bethel Park

About 50 people rallied outside Bethel Park School District’s administration building Aug. 27 in response to the school board’s recent surprise tax cut.

The group dubbed its protest the “Bad Faith, Bad Policy Rally.”

Six speakers, some of whom are school director candidates, lambasted the board’s June 25 decision to lower the property tax rate by 8.2%.

“No district that cares about the education of children would have done this,” said resident Shayna Willis. She said the tax cut was a political move designed to handcuff the new board that will take office in December.

The decision to cut taxes surprised many residents and some members of the school board, because the board did not discuss the idea during several months of budget meetings. The matter was only broached when the budget had to be adopted, about a week before the state deadline. At that meeting, the board voted 6-3 to reduce the property tax rate from 22.8763 mills to 21 mills.

Directors Ken Nagel, Barry Christianson and Pam Dobos dissented. Those three directors resisted efforts to cut some educational spending in the past.

Some of the board members voting for the tax cut will not be in office in December, because they were defeated in the May primary.

The tax cut will reduce revenue by about $4.7 million and the district will have to withdraw about $5.7 million from its reserve fund to cover the shortfall.

Opponents of the move argue such a drastic reduction in revenue will place the district in a financially precarious position, forcing the future board to raise taxes by the maximum state-allowed rate for several years just to recover.

“I’m scared the generation coming up behind me is not going to be afforded the same advantages because of the decisions made in that board room right now,” said Tom Duerr, one of the organizers of the rally. “They slashed and hindered Bethel Park’s future.”

Director Jim Means, who voted for the tax cut, said at the board meeting the district has a fund balance that is large enough to grant property owners some relief.

“It was all about reducing the cost of education for taxpayers,” he said.

Director Pam Dobos countered if that’s the case, the board’s majority should have made that argument during public meetings so school officials could investigate the issue to determine the ramifications of any tax cut.

“The way you did it was just wrong,” Dobos said.

Rally organizer Sharon Janosik presented a petition to the board with about 600 signatures from people asking for the resignations of the six board members who voted for the tax cut.

“They have to resign. They should be ashamed,” she said at the protest.

School board members argued over Nagel’s request for information regarding long-term building maintenance, staffing levels, resources and financial commitments.

Nagel said he needed the information to plan for any potential financial difficulty the tax cut might cause.

Other board members noted it would take considerable effort for administrators to gather that information, so the motion to place Nagel’s request on the agenda failed, 4-3.

Later, Nagel interrupted the meeting to state he was filing a Freedom of Information Act request for that information. Means attempted to censure Nagel for the interruption, but Means’ motion failed when no one seconded the motion.

The tax-cut issue has generated significant controversy in Bethel Park in the past several weeks. Comments have become particularly nasty on social media. Resident Diane Ford urged those discussing the matter to show more civility and respect for their neighbors.

“Kids are watching how we conduct ourselves,” she said.


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Veterans Breakfast Club honors those who served in World War II

With the Allied World War II victory secured in Europe, combat medic Bill Winowich was getting ready for training to head to the Pacific.

In spring 1945, he was entering a medical station to have a new photograph taken when he noticed a French Red Cross worker at the building.

“Bill leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and she punched him in the face and said, ‘You pig,’” Mt. Lebanon resident Todd DePastino said. “They were married four months later. They will celebrate their 74th anniversary next month.”

Jackie Winowich accompanied her husband to the annual gala of the Veterans Breakfast Club, which DePastino founded, held Aug. 23 at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square.

The theme of this year’s event was “Veteran Voices of the Year: Veterans of World War II,” with 54 Western Pennsylvania residents honored for their service three-quarters of a century ago.

DePastino, executive director of the nonprofit organization that encourages veterans to tell their stories, shared information about each of the honorees, with the Winowiches’ first meeting receiving an especially good response.

With the war ending 74 years ago, the women and men receiving honors all are in their mid-90s or older, with U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Jim Ross topping the list at 102.

“Jim was drafted before Pearl Harbor. At the time, with the one-year draft, the song was ‘Goodbye, Dear, I’ll Be Home in a Year.’ And he was still looking forward to get home when Pearl Harbor happened and he knew he’d be in,” DePastino said. “He didn’t come home until 1946.”

DePastino recalled hearing Ross share his experiences during a Veterans Breakfast Club gathering.

“Jim talked very movingly about how hard it was to come home after being away for so long. He said, ‘You wonder if anybody’s going to remember you,’” DePastino said. “And I just thought about our young vets who face that prospect, of reintegration, coming back home after being overseas.”

Chairing the committee that organized the gala was Sharon George, whose nonprofit Sha’nini George Foundation served as event sponsor. Part of the mission of the organization – named for her great-grandmother, a survivor of the Titanic voyage – is to recognize and honor military veterans and personnel.

“I am particularly pleased to host all of the World War II vets here today. You are the most beloved generation, and rightly so. You are the most respected generation, and rightly so. You grew up in a Depression, and then you went off to war – not just any war, a world war – and you saved the world,” George said. “As such, each of you has a fascinating story to tell, and that is where the VBC comes in.

“And in fact,” she continued, “I know some of your stories because of the VBC: first, Julia Parsons, who had a top-secret job during World War II decoding the infamous Germany enigma encryption machine. How cool is that?

“Second, because of the VBC, I know Henry Parham, who was a member of the only African-American unit to touch down on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He is today the only living African-American who participated in D-Day.”

Gala guests also had the opportunity learn more about the World War II veterans through the screening of a video, compiled by DePastino’s daughter Ellie, containing excerpts of interviews captured for posterity.

Todd DePastino spoke about the 2008 origins of the Veterans Breakfast Club with 30 South Hills residents, including Pearl Harbor survivor Floyd Laughlin, who was 96 when he died in 2013.

“I remember him saying to me at one of those early events that he remembered Decoration Day as a child and Decoration Day parades,” DePastino said.

“He said, ‘I remember seeing the Civil War veterans marching in it, and they seemed so old. I was just in awe of them, of what they had experienced and what they had seen and done.’

“And then Floyd turned to me with a tear in his eye, and he said, ‘And now I’m one of those old veterans.’”

The 2019 gala was full of folks who will have similar memories of meeting and learning about women and men who served in World War II.

“We feel the privilege of being in your presence, of kind of reaching back through history,” DePastino said. “We also reach out to each other, I think, as citizens and kind of remind ourselves what our country is all about, the country you served and gave so much to. And so we just are privileged to be in your company tonight.”

In the South Hills, the Veterans Breakfast Club has events scheduled from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, Nov. 26 and Dec. 21 at Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park. RSVP for all events unless otherwise noted to 412-623-9029 or ellie@veteransbreakfastclub.com.

Also, a Veterans Breakfast Club panel discussion – “Veterans Speak Out: Were the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Worth Fighting?” – is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at Peters Township Public Library.

For more information, visit vbcpgh.org.


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New Peters Township ordinance addresses property maintenance

A new Peters Township “Quality of Life” ordinance is in place following council’s unanimous approval Monday.

“We wanted to improve our property maintenance enforcement toolkit, and one of the ideas that my fellow planning staff came up with was a ticketing program,” township planning director Ed Zuk said. “This is a way in which the township can quickly enforce common property maintenance issues.”

The ordinance calls for the planning department to inform property owners of violations by hanging notices on their doors. According to township manager Paul Lauer, the practice should go into effect in about 30 days, after the notices are printed.

Five sections of the township code are addressed by the ordinance: domestic animals, littering, nuisances, exterior property areas and swimming pools, spas and hot tubs. Nuisances include “the collection of junk or debris, overgrown weeds, hazardous trees, standing water and infestations.”

“We would canvass the township,” Zuk told council. “As we see violations, there would be a door hanger that would be clearly placed on a property so that the property owner can see it. That door hanger will give clear notice of what ordinance is being violated and how many days they have to get that violation abated.”

Fines are $35 for the first “Quality of Life Ticket,” and if the violation is not addressed within the required time period, a second, $50 ticket will be issued. Failure to take action after that would result in the township issuing a citation with District Judge Jesse Pettit.

Property owners who received tickets can appeal them through Pettit’s office.

“This is analogous to a parking ticket that would be issued,” Lauer said. “So if you fail to pay the ticket, you’re going to the magistrate and you’re going to assume the cost of having gone to the magistrate.”

He said township solicitor John Smith reviewed the ordinance, and municipal staff members have talked with Pettit about the new procedure.

Council member Frank Arcuri voiced a concern regarding an aspect of the ordinance’s effectiveness.

“How are you going to deal with those individuals who say, ‘What door hanger?’” Arcuri said.

Zuk replied the process will be documented by photograph.

“We’ll put them in places where property owners can clearly see them,” he said. “We’ll document that we’ve placed them there, and we think that we can attack these property maintenance code issues quicker.”

Council member Monica Merrell said she agrees with the intent of the ordinance.

“I think your staff came up with something smart,” she told Zuk. “I think it’s a good way to approach the problem.”