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Gainesville schools consider raising taxes

Residents can voice opinions on next year’s budget

POSTED: June 7, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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The Gainesville City Board of Education is looking at a possible 15 percent hike in the tax rate as part of its proposed budget for fiscal year 2008-2009.

Residents will have a chance to weigh in with their opinions at hearings set for 10 a.m. Wednesday at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy, 170 Barn St., and at 6 p.m. Thursday at Gainesville High School, 830 Century Place.

Last August, the board was looking at data that showed a year-end surplus. The school system had a windfall of tax revenues, thanks in large part to a reassessment of property values. The board decided to reduce property taxes, wiping out the windfall.

"In hindsight, we should not have rolled back the taxes," schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe said Tuesday. "Definitely knowing what we know today, taxes should have been increased, and then we would be halfway through a period of correction."

The board is looking at increasing the tax rate to 8 mills from 6.94, with 1 mill equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property value. The owner of a $150,000 home would see a $207 increase in the tax bill.

The tax increase could raise $3.5 million next year. To balance next year’s projected $52.6 million budget, the district also is looking at some $4.5 million in cuts, including not filling some vacant positions.

Next year’s budget could produce a year-end surplus of nearly $4 million, particularly if it receives the same midyear adjustment it received this year from the state, or $1.6 million.

The surplus, however, would go to relieve a projected deficit of $6.5 million to $7 million by June 30, or the end of the current fiscal year.

Chief financial officer Janet Allison has said the tax increases and budget cuts may get the system back into the black in two years.

The board has voted to pursue a "tax anticipation note," or short-term loan of about $5 million to carry the system into the next fiscal year.

Ballowe has said that former finance chief Angela Adams provided inaccurate data to the board last year that led the board to making funding decisions.

"I certainly feel responsible for the happenings," Ballowe said Tuesday, adding that "you trust people to do the right thing."

Working against an already bad situation is rising expenses, particularly in fuel and personnel costs.

Allison said the system is looking at spending $300,000 on fuel next year, having budgeted $185,000 this year. Salary and benefit amounts could rise to $47.9 million from $45.4 million.

Karen Stout, a city resident, said she believes the school board ought to consider cutting Ballowe’s pay to the amount before it was raised last year, "especially in view of the current economy."

As part of a contract extension last year, Ballowe earns $185,000 per year salary and full benefits for the remainder of a three-year agreement if the board fires him without cause. Under his previous contract, he earned $170,331.

In a period of "budget cuts and constraints, I think that the person at the top needs to show some personal fiscal restraint," Stout said.

Finances aren’t particularly rosy in the Hall County school system, either.

School officials are looking at increasing the tax rate to 16.53 mills from 15.75 to fund a proposed $217 million budget, said Will Schofield, superintendent of Hall schools.

The owner of a $150,000 home would see about a $46 increase in the tax bill.

The budget proposes $154 million for instruction, including salaries and new positions, about $12 million more than this year’s $142 million. Diesel fuel is expected to cost $2.4 million next year, compared to $1.6 million this year.

And the year-end balance would run about $7.5 million, down from this year’s $8 million.

"With property values holding steady at best and enrollment slowing, we did not feel comfortable dropping the reserve balance any further," Schofield said.



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