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Few residents speak up about Gainesville schools tax increase

POSTED: September 20, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Following a summer in which the community was up in arms over a proposed 14 percent property tax increase, only a handful of residents showed up at a Gainesville school board public hearing to discuss the tentatively adopted 12 percent tax increase.

In a 4-1 vote, with board member Sammy Smith dissenting, the board approved a deficit elimination plan that details a timeline for how much the board will chip away at its estimated $5.6 million deficit until it is paid off on June 30, 2011.

The Gainesville City Board of Education held the first of three public hearings Monday evening to hear residents’ thoughts on the tentative tax increase. The Gainesville City Council will have the first of two votes on the tentative millage rate increase this morning.

The two remaining school board public hearings will take place on Sept. 25. The City Council is slated to take a final vote on the tentative millage rate on Oct. 7 in time to mail the property tax bills out Oct. 10.

The board held its regularly scheduled board meeting after the public hearing.

Bill Morrison, a practicing doctor and Gainesville resident, was the only citizen to speak at the hearing.

He told the board he appreciated its dedication to resolving the deficit situation, but had qualms about the $190,000 the board agreed to pay former Gainesville school Superintendent Steven Ballowe in August. The board settled with Ballowe after it fired him in early July, citing fiscal irresponsibility as a primary reason.

"It’s like a failure, and we’ve got to pick up the ball for their failure," Morrison said. "... That’s not right, and I’m going to have to pay for it. ... But I’m more concerned about accountability and what’s going to happen in the future."

Gainesville school board Chairman David Syfan said the board currently was in the process of implementing procedures to ensure that such grave accounting errors will not occur again.

According to Janet Allison, finance director for Gainesville schools, the board is considering raising the total millage rate from the current rate of 6.96 mills to 7.81 mills. In June, the board was considering a 7.96 millage rate for fiscal year 2009, which began July 1.

One mill equals $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. If the city adopts the 7.81 millage rate, the owner of a $183,800 home, the median home price in Gainesville, would pay $156.23 in additional property tax.

Allison said the board is considering increasing the maintenance and operations portion of the millage rate from 6.62 to 7.42. The remainder of the current millage rate, 0.34 mills, goes toward paying off the school system’s bonds debt used for school construction. The board also is considering raising that debt millage rate to 0.39 mills for fiscal year 2009, which brings the total millage rate increase to 7.81 mills.

Allison said the millage rate for fiscal year 2007 was 7.83 mills.

The deficit elimination plan proposes the school board file its estimated $6.5 million deficit down to $3.8 million by June 30, 2009, then down to $1.8 million by June 30, 2010. By June 30, 2011, the board aims to have the deficit paid off.

Syfan said he wanted to include a clause in the deficit elimination plan, which the board will submit to the state Department of Education, stating the board will follow the plan given that the state does not impose any further budget cuts.

In August, Gov. Sonny Perdue mandated 2 percent cuts in state funding for all local school districts because of drops in state revenue. Merrianne Dyer, interim superintendent for Gainesville schools, said the 2 percent state cuts amount to about $600,000 in cuts for the school system.

"The important thing is we’re dependent upon state funding, and if we don’t get that state funding, we’re not going to be able to make that plan," Syfan said.

Smith said he voted against the three-year deficit elimination plan because he would like to see the deficit eliminated in two years.

"We hope for more reductions in January. ... Over 80 percent of our budget is in personnel," Smith said. "I think we’re headed in the right direction. I just want us to be more aggressive."



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