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Tax increase could be an issue in school board runoff
Proposal doesn't roll back taxes all the way; board wants to reinstate school days
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Public hearings on proposed tax increase

Where: Hall County Board of Education conference room, 711 Green St., Gainesville 
When: 5 p.m. Monday; 11:30 a.m. June 23; 6 p.m. June 23

Hall County residents can be forgiven for thinking the Board of Education’s proposal to lower the tax rate in the next fiscal year equates to a tax cut.

But the proposal technically amounts to an increase. And it could be a factor in the July 22 runoff for the Post 2 Board of Education seat representing South Hall.

The tax digest, or taxable property, has increased 6.58 percent over the last year, with much of the growth coming as a result of reassessing values on lakefront properties.

Reassessed properties account for a $246 million increase in new taxable value. Real growth, or new construction, totals $81.6 million.

Given these increases, the school board would have to roll back the tax rate to 18.134 from 19.25 to keep the budget revenue neutral.

But the school board, in tentatively approving a $222.4 million budget last month, has proposed rolling back the tax rate only to 18.90.

Therefore, this amounts to a 4.22 percent property tax increase, with the burden largely shouldered by lakefront homeowners.

Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said the additional revenue from the tax increase is worth close to $3 million and will be used to help restore four days to the school calendar, as well as reduce classroom sizes.

“I guess we could have rolled back the entire amount and not let kids go to school 180 days,” Schofield said, “but that just wasn’t where our board was and that’s certainly not where I am.”

Schofield said criticism of the tax increase failed to account for the deep spending cuts made in the past few years as a result of the recession and a shrinking tax digest. He added that the school board is collecting almost $5 million less annually than it did five years ago despite increases in the millage rate in recent years.

“So there certainly appears to be some doublespeak out there,” Schofield said. “It just seems like folks would like to have it both ways.”

While residents of Hall County have until the end of the month to appeal the reassessments in property values — which might result in another adjustment to the millage rate — the proposed tax increase could play a major role in the runoff between incumbent Brian Sloan and challenger Mark Pettitt.

Both Sloan and Pettitt signed a pledge at the behest of the Hall County Republican Party not to raise taxes when they qualified for the primary in March.

Sloan, however, supports the proposed budget and takes exception to the charge he is raising taxes, noting the board has cut $100 million from its budget over five years while the tax digest has dropped significantly.

“This has hurt our students tremendously, and taken money out of teacher’s paychecks,” Sloan wrote in an email to The Times.

Pettitt, meanwhile, has made his pledge not to raise taxes a cornerstone of his campaign, and he said, were he on the school board, he would not support a budget without a full rollback of the tax rate.

Sloan defends his support for the budget, adamant that he has fulfilled the spirit of the pledge.

“When I signed the pledge, I stated to the people in that room that I could only promise that I wouldn’t raise the millage rate because that is all I had control over,” Sloan wrote in an email to The Times. “I don’t have control over property assessments. I did my part to not raise taxes.”

How much a factor this winds up being in the upcoming runoff remains to be seen, but Pettitt hints he is likely to play up the issue.

“(Sloan) pledged to the people of Hall County that he would not support any tax increases,” Pettitt said. “I think we need to hold him true to that.”

And Sloan appears ready for the attacks to come.

“It’s a shame that some people are playing politics with the education of our children,” he said.

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