“A millage rate increase does not automatically mean anyone’s taxes are going up.”
That was the quote from Jeff Benefield, tax assessor board member, at the Monday budget seminar of the Hall County school system.
The seminar, held as an informational program to explain how a school budget is pieced together, came before the first public hearing on the school system’s proposed budget and millage rate.
“The millage rate is nothing but a quotient,” Benefield explained. “When you divide the budget by the tax digest, then you get a quotient, and that quotient is called the millage rate.
“One of the greatest misconceptions that people have is, is that if the millage rate goes up, that my taxes automatically go up,” he added. “That could not be further from the truth, because if the value of your property goes down, the millage rate is automatically going to go up. ... A millage rate increase does not automatically mean anyone’s taxes are going up, because a higher millage rate multiplied by a lower assessed value would translate into a lower tax bill.”
The Hall County Board of Education has given tentative approval to $207.9 million in the general fund for fiscal year 2013-14. The total budget is at $285.5 million.
The proposed budget accounts for a tax rate of 19.25 mills, up from the current rate of 18.49. One mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in property value, which is assessed at 40 percent.
Deputy Superintendent Lee Lovett led the budget seminar, which mainly focused on the cuts that have been made in the sources of revenue for school budgets. Declining state funding has led to the need to find the funds elsewhere.
Out of funding source percentages, he showed that in 1996, 65.77 percent of funding came from the state. Local funding was 30.89 percent.
In 2012, the state’s portion was down to 54.43 percent, while local funding went up to 38.08 percent.
“And your first blush might be, ‘Well 10 percent, that’s not much,’” said Superintendent Will Schofield on the decrease in state funding. “Well, 10 percent of $200 million is real money. That’s $20 million, which is exactly what our austerity cut was for just last year in the Hall County school district.
“Your board has been scrambling since 2002 to try to kind of make up, where in the world do you find $20 million every year that disappears from state revenues that you have to find locally. and what your board has done is reduce their expenses by about $20 million, and spent up most of our savings,” Schofield continued.
While reliance on local taxes by the school system has gone up, Lovett showed how the tax digest in the county has gone down over the past five years — from $5.2 billion in 2008 to $4.6 billion in 2013.
“The real money comes from the property tax,” he said.
“That’s a 20 percent loss of the digest over a five-year period,” Schofield added.
Additionally, nearly $1 billion is lost due to tax exemptions, up from about $758 million in 2008.
“It is a huge, unsustainable issue,” Schofield said.
There are several ways a person may be exempt from paying at least some school taxes, including being a senior citizen, a disabled veteran or a surviving spouse of a military member.
Schofield pointed out that Hall County is similar to the rest of the nation in that there is a “baby boomer population.”
“More and more of us are going to qualify for that exemption,” he said, saying that the state needs to look at how public education is funded.
In Hall County, 67 percent of the property owner’s tax bill goes to the school system, with the county receiving 26 percent.
While the budget seminar saw a handful of people, including teachers and school board members, no one spoke at the first public hearing on the proposed FY14 budget and millage rate.
The next two public hearings for the budget and proposed millage rate are next Monday at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. The final budget is expected to be adopted at the 6 p.m. hearing.
Schofield emphasized that community members are encouraged to contact school board members and officials to discuss the budget.
“We’re welcome to input,” he said. “We just want to lay it out on the table. It’s easy to criticize. What I’d really love to see is constructive criticism. We would love to have some ideas.”
A video of the budget seminar, as well as copies of the presentation, is scheduled to be posted on the Hall County Schools’ website, hallco.org/boe.