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Gainesville City Council to discuss school system's plea for financial relief

POSTED: June 22, 2008 5:02 a.m.

The Gainesville City Council soon will meet and discuss a request to waive a fee it charges to the city’s Board of Education for preparing school property tax bills and collecting payments.

The discussion follows a letter to Gainesville Mayor Myrtle Figueras from school board Chairman Willie Mitchell asking that the council consider a "one-time, one-year waiver of the tax preparation and collections fee" for this year’s property tax bills.

Each year, the school board pays the city 1 percent of its property tax collections to cover the costs associated with sending out and collecting tax bills.

The request comes at a time when Gainesville is working on a reduced budget and the school board faces a $6 million to $7 million deficit.

Gainesville’s Chief Financial Officer Melody Marlowe estimates that the school board will receive approximately $24.8 million in property tax revenue this year, meaning the waived fee would save the school board about $248,000.

Yet losing the fee would force city officials to find a way to make up for that loss in revenue. The only way to allow for the waiver is to cut expenses or find additional revenue, said City Manager Bryan Shuler.

"It’s a budgeted item in our budget," Shuler said. "It’s not like something we could just eliminate and it not have an impact on our budget."

Shuler said finding additional revenue would be near impossible at a time when the council is close to approving its own, balanced budget.

"There’s no surplus (of revenue) in the budget. The budget’s a balanced budget," Shuler said.

He would not say what already budgeted expenses would have to be cut in order to allow the school board the one-time waiver, but said he would discuss it with the council at Thursday’s work session.

Although council members have yet to discuss the request, Councilman George Wangemann said Tuesday that he does not think he would vote in favor of the request.

"It’s something we could look at — put it that way," Wangemann said. "But I think that basically, it sounds like the school board’s looking to transfer that expense — that fee — to us, which isn’t really fair, because in essence it belongs to their budget, not ours."

The school board is supposed to pay the fee because it costs city employees time and labor to deal with school taxes, Wangemann said.

Gainesville’s budget manager Jay Mancin said he has never analyzed how much it costs the city to prepare and collect taxes for the school board each year.

The city’s finance department does not normally track costs associated with collecting school taxes, and doing so would take time, Marlowe said in an e-mail Tuesday.

Wangemann and other council members are more than aware that their own budget is a slim one this year.

Each city department faced budget cuts to the point that the city will hire no new employees this year in order to absorb higher health insurance costs, and Figueras said she did not know how Gainesville could come up with another $200,000-plus.

"We’ve done so much cutting, actually cut until it’s bleeding right now ... and I don’t know exactly what’s going to be done," Figueras said Tuesday.

Figueras, a former teacher in Gainesville schools, called dealing with the request "hard." On Tuesday, she had not seen, only heard, about the letter Mitchell sent on the school board’s behalf.

"I believe that somehow things are going to work out, and our school system is one of the greatest," Figueras said. "I’ll always be a Red Elephant, but at the same time we have to look at all areas that we can help each other in all crises."

Both Councilman Robert "Bob" Hamrick and Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Bruner, a former school board member, will not discuss the request with the rest of the council Thursday, because both are out of town. Neither could be reached for comment on Monday or Tuesday.

Yet the three council members — Wangemann, Figueras and Danny Dunagan — who will be present on Thursday all say they are open to discussion.

"We’ll talk about it as a council and figure out which way to go," Figueras said.



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