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Reassessment: Falling values, rising tax rates: School district covers $2.2 million budget gap

By Roger Greene
Coastal Observer

By a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Georgetown County School board raised the tax rate 6 percent to cover a projected shortfall of more than $2.2 million for operating expenses and $828,527 for debt services in its 2011 budget.

With overall property values in the county down as a result of reassessment, and a proposed $70.1 million school budget, the board agreed to an increase of 6 mills for operating expenses and 1.5 mills for debt services.

Not approving the increase could have resulted in the reduction of 40 to 50 staff members, including teachers, the deferment of planned projects, and the suspension of new technology purchases.

The school board increase follows a tax rate increase of 7.6 percent by County Council to maintain its revenue following this year’s reassessment.

“I hate to see taxes go up” said Board Member Benny Elliott. “But we didn’t have the money to fund the budget that was passed last year. We didn’t anticipate having to do this, but our only viable option was to raise the millage. The school board is much different from City [Council] or County Council. They have options we don’t have. And we have to fund education.”

Said Board Chairman Jim Dumm, “We had to make a hard decision in light of everything that is going on. Our only other option would have been to start cutting people. Doing that would have affected a lot of different things, starting with class sizes, which we don’t want to see changed.”

The board had considered bringin the rate increases up for a vote during their Oct. 5 session, but decided to wait until this week’s meeting to give themselves and the public time to weigh the issue. Thirty minutes were set aside for public comments on Tuesday, but there were no takers.

Board Member Sarah Elliott said she received no comments from the public leading up to the meeting and Teresa Bennani said the comments she heard tended to favor the increase.

“Most of the people I spoke to understood why we needed to do this,” Bennani said. “I appreciate their support.”

Since a state tax reform adopted in 2006, owner-occupied property owners don’t pay property taxes to fund school operations. The 6-mill increase will be paid by owners of non-residential property.

For the owner of a $100,000 non-residential property, including a rental home or second home, the increase will be $36.

Owner-occupied property is taxed to pay for debt service. The 1.5 mill increase equals $6 on a $100,000 property. For a non-residential property, it would be $9.

The rise in the tax rate will not necessarily indicate a tax increase. Decreases in property values could leave some owners paying the same amount of taxes as last year, or less.

But those whose property value increased or stayed the same will see a higher tax bill.

“When it concerns their pocketbooks, the public is going to take a closer look to see that we are doing are jobs,” Benny Elliott said. “We need to make sure the money is going where it needs to go. If we are not good stewards, it will fall back on us. That is the way it should be.”

Said Dumm, “There has to be effort for every dollar that is spent. The money has to be used for improving the quality of education for our children.”

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