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Gainesville school board hopes for City Council help

Officials dealing with budget shortfall, possible 20 percent tax hike

POSTED: June 20, 2008 5:01 a.m.
TOM REED/The Times

Gainesville school system financial officer Janet Allison addresses the school board during a meeting Monday.

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The Gainesville school board is looking for budget relief wherever it can find it, including asking City Council to waive for one year the fee it charges to send out property tax notices and collect taxes on the district’s behalf.

City Board of Education member Sammy Smith, who proposed the measure, said the relief could save the system $200,000.

The board voted on the issue during a budget work session Monday at school board offices.

The amount is a fraction of the $6.5 million to $7 million deficit it needs to make up as the board moves toward passing a 2008-09 budget, which takes effect July 1.

Just how the board’s request will resonate with the council isn’t yet known, but one council member, Danny Dunagan, said the city is running a tight budget, too.

"I figure it costs us about (as much as the city receives from the 1 percent fee) to collect taxes and distribute them and so forth," Dunagan said.

The school board now is looking at approving a tentative budget on Monday, with final approval set for June 30, which is when the budget is due to the state.

In the meantime, the board has asked chief financial officer Janet Allison to factor into the budget recommended cuts from Superintendent Steven Ballowe and the board. Allison said she would submit a tentative budget to the board by Friday.

Ballowe has cited $4.5 million in cuts. Board member Maria Calkins is compiling a list of cuts based on suggestions from all board members. Smith questioned school officials Monday on Ballowe’s suggestion to cut $955,000 for replacing the roof at Gainesville Middle School.

He noted that a March 4 memo from Ballowe suggested the cost would be about $450,000, while an April preliminary budget showed $964,000 for the expense.

"I’m sorry to express such public frustration, but do you all see where I’m coming from?" Smith asked. "We have got to have real numbers."

Keith Vincent, director of maintenance and transportation, said that $964,000 should more than cover the expense.

"Do you understand my point, though?" Smith said. "We cannot operate honestly unless we have accurate numbers."

He went on to ask Allison to determine whether Ballowe’s suggested cuts reflected items that had been in the budget and then removed as part of the efforts to reduce the district’s deficit.

"Let’s find out ... if each item is budgeted or not," Smith said.

After the meeting, Smith’s frustration continued.

"I cannot provide any accurate budget document in which I have confidence as of this date," he said.

Ballowe was not at the meeting. He is set to return today from a pre-planned trip to Russia.

"This list needs work, and our lists need work." Smith said, referring to lists made by Ballowe and the board members.

Ballowe has recommended raising the tax rate to 8.34 mills from 6.96, a 20 percent increase, along with the $4.5 million in cuts, to cover the shortfall. Allison has said that based on projections, it would take the district at least two years to get back into the black.

The superintendent has said that property tax revenue shortfalls last fiscal year and this fiscal year, as well as some expensive accounting errors, have brought about the deficit.

"The money’s not missing," said board member Willie Mitchell, serving as the board’s June chairman. "It just didn’t show up."

He said housing foreclosures in the past year tell at least part of the story. "If you can’t pay your mortgage, how can you pay your taxes?"

Board member David Syfan said the board would like to cut the tax rate, but the state Department of Education might require the district to raise the maintenance and operations rate to the maximum as the district might need more than one year to get out of the red.

Ballowe’s proposed rate includes .34 mills for bond debts and the maximum-allowed 8 mills for maintenance and operations.

Also on Monday, the school board met for more than an hour in executive session to discuss personnel, one of the exemptions under the state’s open meetings law.

The board is set to meet again for another budget work session at noon today at central offices at 508 Oak St.



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