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Schools: District expects slim surplus without tax increase

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A drop in the value of property on Georgetown County’s tax rolls will leave the Georgetown County School District with a razor thin line of black ink in its operating budget. But district officials said they don’t need to follow the lead of county government and raise the tax rate.

“We are within our budget with the current millage,” said Lisa Johnson, the district finance director.

But the district already had to draw $160,000 from its $10.7 million reserve to balance its fiscal 2015 operating budget, Johnson told the school board this week. Revenue was up for the year that ended June 30, but spending was up even more, mostly for salaries and benefits.

Superintendent Randy Dozier thinks the district will be able to replace those funds in its reserve this year. Attendance is up and that will bring additional state funding, he said.

Dozier said he first learned about the drop in county property values in a call from a reporter. “It caused me a little concern,” he said.

County Council voted last month to raise its tax rate by 2 mills just before sending out tax bills to property owners. A mill equals $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value. Property values in the county dropped 2.5 percent in a reassessment completed last month. The decline was over 4 percent in the tax districts on Waccamaw Neck. Reassessment is required by state law every five years.

“We didn’t know what the numbers were until October,” said Brian Shult, the county auditor. His office confirms the revenue that local governments can expect from their tax rates. “We’re kind of the middle man here,” he said.

The school district is different from county and municipal government because state law exempts owner-occupied homes from property tax to pay for school operations. That money is made up with revenue from the state sales tax. Shult told the school board he was confident its tax rate of 107 mills would cover the operating budget.

The district had budgeted $40.7 million in property tax revenue for its current budget. Figures prepared by Johnson and Shult show it will get $41.4 million at a 97 percent collection rate. State reimbursement for property taxes will bring in $17.1 million, about $500,000 more than shown on the budget that the school board adopted in June. All of that will leave the district with $38,088 at the end of the fiscal year.

“I don’t want to find out six months down the road that we made a mistake,” Board Member Richard Kerr said.

“We come up with a balanced budget,” Shult told him.

“That’s the reassurance we as a board wanted to hear,” School Board Chairman Jim Dumm said. “We want to make sure that the public understands that.”

He added that the reassessment “kind of snuck up on us.”

Kerr, who has pressed for regular financial reports, said he was “a little surprised” to find that the fiscal 2015 budget went $863,947 over in spending on salaries and benefits. “That was a little higher than I thought it would be.”

Johnson said she would provide a breakdown of where that money went. Dozier said a large portion was the cost of providing security at all the schools and at school-related activities.

“I would like to see us a little more timely in our reporting,” Kerr added. “So we don’t get surprised.”

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