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School board votes 3-2 to maintain tax rate

The Grady County Board of Education remained split over the 2013 tax rate, but with a full board present Monday night the majority bucked the superintendent and left the millage rate at 14.2 mills.
Vice Chairman Scott Higginbotham and board members Jeff Worsham and Allen Jenkins voted to maintain the millage rate at 14.2 mills while Board Chairman Drew Pyrz and board member Teresa Gee Harris voted in support of the superintendent’s recommendation.
Superintendent Lee M. Bailey maintained his recommendation of adjusting the millage rate to 14.4 mills to compensate for a depressed tax digest, which he first presented last week.
At 14.2 mills the school system will actually collect $181,962 less in local tax dollars to operate the county schools.
To make up the $181,962 shortfall and a $275,965 operating deficit for the 2013-2014 budget the board will dip into the school system’s projected reserves of $3.5 million to balance the books for the next fiscal year.
In addition, the board has directed the superintendent to withdraw $250,000 from reserves to pay for new textbooks for the new school term that begins next month.
All of those expenses are to be spent out of the reserves, but Finance Officer Dan Broome has not finalized the closing of the books on fiscal year 2012-2013 so he cannot be certain what the exact total of the cash reserves will be.
Broome has estimated the system will end the last fiscal year about $500,000 to the good, but he is hesitant to say just how much the ending fund balance will be.
The board is also going to spend approximately $354,000 of the reserves to pay teachers and other school personnel a lump sum bonus equal to three days of pay employees have lost due to furloughs.
For the last several years school system personnel have been cut five to seven days of pay and the school board did not restore that loss in pay in the 2013-2014 budget.
The board deadlocked last Tuesday night 2-2 over the millage rate, but Board member Allen Jenkins, confined to a mobile scooter, was able to attend the called meeting Monday night.
Superintendent Bailey repeated his call for a rate adjustment to 14.4 mills and noted that the millage rate in Grady County is lower than that of Decatur County, Thomasville City, Thomas County, Brooks County, Lee County, and Dougherty County, some of which have significantly larger tax digests than in Grady County.
Bailey said that in addition to the furlough days for school system employees all local supplements have been cut by $1,000.
What he refers to as the “tax on teachers” is a large part of the money the board is using to fund the budget.
“If we have to make up that difference we would have to raise the millage by 2.4 mills,” Superintendent Bailey said.
The new school superintendent said that the difference between 14.2 and 14.4 mills is only $98,301, but he said he preferred minor adjustments to the millage rather than being forced to increase the millage rate one, two or three mills at one time down the road.
According to Bailey, some other systems are looking at increasing the millage by 3.5 mills. “I don’t want us to be in that predicament down the road,” he added.
School Finance Officer Dan Broome also advocated slight adjustments in the millage rate rather than larger adjustments in the future.
“In my opinion, we should make small adjustments so should a year come and we have to look at a one or two mill increase in one year. That way we can soften those changes in the future. That’s our goal,” Broome said.
Board member Jenkins who missed the last board meeting and the last budget workshop said the taxpayers whose values did not decrease would “get murdered” by increasing the millage rate from 14.2 to 14.4 mills.
However, the majority of values of real property declined countywide and the increase in taxes for those property owners whose values did not decrease would have only been on average less than $5.
Jenkins indicated he would support a millage rate adjustment if it was to restore the teachers’ pay. He challenged the superintendent to bring back a plan and he would support it
“I’d love to give them all the money back today, but we don’t have a plan,” Jenkins said.
Superintendent Bailey said the only way to give all the money back to school system employees that has been cut would require a drastic increase in the millage rate.
“That’s why we have offered what we believe is a balanced approach to include a millage adjustment and using our reserves,” Bailey said.
Vice Chairman Higginbotham said his opposition to the superintendent’s recommendation was not a reflection on Bailey or his staff. He said that Grady County families would like to have a savings account as large percentage wise as the school system.
“I’d love to fully restore the teachers’ pay and I’d also like to continue lowering the millage rate, but that would take a combined effort by all agencies in this county,” Higginbotham said.
“The 14.2 mills is the minimum required, but we will accept all donations over the 14.2 mills and all of those contributions would be tax deductible,” the vice chairman said.
In reference to a recent editorial published by The Cairo Messenger Higginbotham made references to “left wing newspaper” and said the school board was not “kicking the can down the road” when it comes to its finances.
Board member Jeff Worsham remained silent Tuesday night.
Chairman Pyrz then called for the superintendent’s recommendation and Bailey recommended 14.4 mills. Board member Teresa Gee Harris offered a motion to tentatively set the millage at 14.4 mills and Chairman Pyrz seconded it. Higginbotham, Worsham and Jenkins voted down Ms. Harris’ motion.
The vice chairman then offered a motion to tentatively set the tax rate at 14.2 mills and Board member Jenkins seconded. That motion passed 3-2.
Final adoption will take place at a called meeting to be held at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 31 at the VanLandingham Center.
The board voted unanimously to adopt a total budget for 2013-2014 of $36,457,823. Final adoption of the budget will also take place July 31.
Of that $36,457,823 only $6,979,382 will come from local school taxes with the balance being funded by the state and federal government.

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