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Gainesville officials: Budget memo at center of schools' financial mess might not exist

POSTED: June 15, 2008 5:01 a.m.

Nearly two weeks after Gainesville schools Superintendent Steven Ballowe recommended a 20 percent tax hike to make up for a nearly $7 million deficit in the school system’s budget, school officials have yet to produce a March 2006 letter that he claims is at the center of the school system’s financial debacle.

School officials have so far been unable to produce the letter, despite requests from The Times.

Ballowe said the letter estimated that the school system would receive about $21.5 million in property taxes during the 2006-07 school year — an estimation he says neither he nor the school board knew about when it passed a budget for that year that counted on at least $23.5 million in property tax revenues.

Ballowe said the school system’s current financial chief did not find the letter until fall 2007, but city officials doubt the letter’s existence.

"There is no letter that I’m aware of," Gainesville City Manager Bryan Shuler said.

Melody Marlowe, Gainesville’s chief financial officer, said she had a conversation Monday with Janet Allison, the school system’s current financial chief.

"She brought it up and apologized for any inconvenience it caused," Marlowe said Tuesday. "She said she didn’t know what (Ballowe) was referring to."

Allison did not respond to an e-mail or multiple messages The Times left for her from Friday to Tuesday at the school system’s central office and two other phone numbers listed for her in the Gainesville phone book.

When The Times tried to meet with Allison in person at the school system’s central office Tuesday afternoon, her assistant said she was out of the office.

Marlowe, who estimates the school system’s property tax revenues every year, says she sent the revenue projections for the 2006-2007 school year in an e-mail to Angela Adams, the school board’s former financial chief. A document from Marlowe shows that in March 2006 she projected the school board’s property tax revenues to be about $22.95 million, but her final estimation was closer to $22.7 million.

Marlowe said she sends similar updates on revenue projections twice monthly.

Marlowe’s involvement in the school board’s budgeting process is limited to an e-mail with an estimation of the system’s property tax revenues each March, she said. Until August 2007, those revenue projections went to Adams, but since Adams left her position with Gainesville schools, Marlowe sends those projections to Allison and Ballowe.

In March 2006, the year in question, Marlowe’s report estimated that the school system would receive $22.95 million from that year’s property taxes. But in June, Marlowe altered that projection to $22.7 million when the school board decided to reduce its tax rate, according to documents Marlowe provided to The Times.

Still, the school board passed a budget that same month that expected $23.5 million in property tax revenues.

In the end, property tax collections for that year came in at $22.78 million.

Although Marlowe sends her projection of the school system’s property tax revenues in the spring, she has no role in deciding what revenue numbers the system actually budgets for that year’s property tax revenues.

"Our role in their budget process is very limited," Shuler said. "We have no role in their budget process, per se. We have a role in providing them digest information in the spring, adopting the millage rate that they tell us they want to adopt ... and then in a reassessment year, updating the digest, or updating the millage rate if rollbacks are required to satisfy the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights in the fall."

Gainesville also collects the city school system’s property taxes, and twice each month, Marlowe sends Ballowe and Allison up-to-date statements of the school’s property tax collections.

"That’s it," Shuler said.

Although Marlowe has no role in how the school system budgets its property tax revenues, she said the school system must at least subtract taxes shared with the Hall County school system and subtract another 1 percent that the city charges the school system for collecting its taxes.

Marlowe would not comment further on how the school system may have gotten in a nearly $7 million budget deficit.

"I’m trying to not have an opinion. I just have facts," Marlowe said.

Verbal requests for the school system’s budget information from previous fiscal years have not been fulfilled. Ballowe’s assistant Lynn Jones said Tuesday that Allison was the only person who had the school system’s budget documents.



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