Commission Oks 10-mill legislation
By By Robert Blankenship
The Escambia County Commission paved the way for an upcoming election on a 10-mill ad valorem tax increase aimed at helping fund schools within the county. The state legislature will now have to vote to allow the vote.
Prior to the vote to make the proposal to the state legislature, the commission held a public forum where several education officials and other community members spoke on the issue.
Broox Garrett, attorney for the county school system, addressed the commission and explained what the system was asking from the county.
"We are not asking you to levy a tax, but to pass a resolution to call for an election to support a 10-mill increase," Garrett said.
Garrett added that the school system held three public forums and that the feedback received from the community was valuable to school officials.
The 10-mill increase will be added to the already existing 3-mill ad valorem tax. The way the 3-mill tax is currently set up, it will have to be renewed in 2007. The ballot of any election held on the ad valorem tax would include the original 3-mills, meaning that the total ad valorem tax stated on the ballot would be 13 mills.
Escambia County Superintendent Buck Powell told the commissioners that the school system will have used up its reserve by the end of next year – a reserve that sat at $5 million a few years ago.
"With the additional proration we are facing next year and the increase in insurance and benefits that is being required we are looking at a $2 million shortfall next year," Powell said.
Brewton City Schools Superintendent Lynn Smith acknowledged that the city system was in a different situation financially, but said that his schools, like the county's, faced a tough future if funding does not increase.
"We are in a little different situation, but this is a very important time for us," Smith said. "The last three years we have been forced to cut back. Over the next few years, we will be spending more than we are putting in. We can do that in the short term, but, like any business person can tell you, that is not the way we want to operate."
Tax Assessor Jim Hildreth addressed the commission to explain how the increase would effect taxpayers in terms of how much they would pay under a 10-mill increase.
Hildreth also addressed the timing of the taxation. He said ad valorem taxes are set in arrears, meaning taxes billed on October 2003 is based on October 2002. This means it will be one year after a tax is passed that the school system sees any additional revenue.
Bob Byrant, a resident of Escambia County, addressed the commission and said he was concerned about wasteful spending within the system.
"I'm for education. It is a requirement of our society. But, I'm here for accountability," Bryant said.
He questioned what happened to additional money that came from higher property reappraisals in 2001. He said the county schools received an additional $200,000 after the reappraisal.
"Both of the systems received more money (from ad valorem taxes) in 2001. I'm sure that money went to a good cause, but it is important for the public to know," he said.
After the meeting, Powell said the $200,000 increase in ad valorem first goes to the state who takes out 77 percent. The remainder of that money is given to the county with 23 percent going to Brewton City Schools and the rest going to the county system.
"It isn't enough to pay for one teacher," Powell said.
Bryant also asked about the money that is given to schools through the car tag licenses.
"We are asking 30 percent of the people to take care of 100 percent," Bryant said. "But, nothing is told to us about the ad valorem taxes from car tags.
"I think (the school system) would get a lot further if we bring everything out to the public. I think a tax would stand a better chance of passing. People want accountability. Put this money on the table."
Smith said after the meeting that it can be frustrating for school officials to explain details that voters need to know.
"It gets complicated and it can be hard to explain," he said. "There are so many regulations that school boards deal with. We have very little flexibility on spending."
He added that the money given to schools through car tags is assigned through an overall ad valorem category. In addition, he said increased property values from reappraisals do not help schools very much and in some cases it actually hurts.
Upon closing the public hearing, David Stokes made a motion to request the special election. Todd Williamson seconded the motion and it passed by a unanimous vote. If the state legislature approves the resolution, a vote will most likely be held in the fall.