Recession fears were voiced. There was talk about the financial pain of senior citizens and the disabled on fixed incomes during inflation and tax increases.
A crowd showed up for the third time in a week before county school board members Tuesday, again urging the group to roll back the school tax rate to offset huge increases in property values, which could send tax bills soaring for many in the fall without a rollback.
Board members sat mostly silent through three tax hearings, with audience members taking the microphone from assistant superintendent Dr. Jody Goodroe and asking the board to cut its budget and its taxes.
One audience member likened school spending to a kid with a credit card. Others asked questions, seeking more clarity on what is included in the school system’s $60 million budget.
“You need to make sacrifices now,” said audience member Marion Baker, who added that he wished the school system would go back to having an elected superintendent.
At the end of a 30-minute hearing, school board members took their turns with the microphone. Group members said they have been considering a rollback for months, but they needed to determine exactly how much could be rolled back while also serving student needs. Board members said they are also county taxpayers and understand the pleas of the audience.
“This discussion has gone on the entire year about a rollback,” said board member Byron Lee. “The only decision has been how much can we roll back.”
The group voted 5-0 Tuesday to roll back the school tax rate in 2022 by 1.5 mills, from 16.99 to 15.49 mills. One mill equals roughly $1 million in property tax revenue this year. So the rollback will be approximately $1.5 million less in local property taxes for education than the school board initially advertised. That will be an approximate 3.9 percent increase in local property tax revenues for 2022 over 2021 — that does not include revenue increases from new growth (homes and businesses added to the county tax rolls over the past year). The board initially advertised a 14-percent increase in revenues (excluding the new growth in the county).
Lee recommended a 1.75 mill tax-rate rollback, but the rest of the board favored a 1.5 mill reduction, saying that more than that would begin to affect services for students and perhaps put the system on shakier ground financially as the schools deal with uncertainties in the economy over the coming year.
Board chairman Robert Hooper noted that 84 percent of the school system budget goes towards salaries and benefits for employees, adding that the state teacher retirement plan and salary schedule includes mandated increases. He said the state has shorted Madison County out of $26 million in funding since 2010 based on Georgia’s funding formula. He added that the system is not classified as low wealth as it once was, so Madison County is not receiving as much through the state’s “equalization funding.”
He spoke of a growing county, with rooftops coming. And board member Cindy Nash reiterated that point, noting that the school system is having to look ahead and consider facility needs as the county grows, which isn’t something that can be tackled in one budget cycle. Both audience members and school board members noted during hearings that the county needs more commercial growth to offset the burden on property taxpayers.
Madison County schools will finish the school year with an estimated $12 million in reserves, but about $9 million of that is federal funding from the coronavirus relief package, which will expire in 2024. Board members said these funds involve spending money, then being reimbursed by the federal government, and there are stipulations on how the money is spent.
An audience member last week suggested the covid funding go toward school supply help for families. Audience member Dylan Drake asked superintendent Michael Williams Tuesday if that’s being considered, and Williams said he is speaking with administrators at schools about supply needs. Drake also asked about recording meetings and putting them online, like the BOC, and also making public speaking easier at meetings, instead of requiring signing up days in advance to address the board. Hooper said those issues will be addressed at a regular meeting, not the tax hearing.
The school board’s decision to roll back the tax rate by 1.5 mills precedes a tax-rate vote by the county commissioners, who will hold hearings Aug. 16 and then vote on a tax rate Aug. 29. County commission chairman Todd Higdon indicated last week that the commissioners are considering a 1.5 mill roll back of their rates.