Local News

October 2, 2013

No tax rate increase from Dalton schools

‘Rainy day’ fund may dry up

It was perhaps nothing more than a formality.

The meeting lasted less than 10 minutes and only three of the five members of the Dalton Board of Education were present to ensure a majority vote as they approved the property tax millage rate Tuesday night. The 3-0 vote kept the tax rate, which was preliminarily set on Sept. 9, at 7.845 mills for another year.

A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of assessed value. For a typical $100,000 home at a 7.845 rate without any exemptions, taxpayers pay about $784.50 annually to school officials to run the school system.

Board members Richard Fromm and Tulley Johnson were absent, leaving final approval to Chairman Danny Crutchfield and outgoing members Mark Orr and Steve Williams, whose last day on the board is Dec. 31.

There has been no comment from members of the public at any tax rate meetings this year and little discussion Tuesday among board members who said they’ve spent much of the year already discussing the issue.

A budget projection provided by the school system assumes $59.6 million in revenue and $64.2 million in expenses for fiscal year 2014, which began in July. About 69 percent of the cost goes towards classroom instruction, including teacher salaries.

This year the school board dipped into a “rainy day” fund, using $4.52 million out of the system’s $10.6 million balance to help cover costs when expenses were more than the system could afford. It also helped pay for a new practice track and artificial turf field at Dalton High School expected to cost $1.35 million by the final payment.

The practice track and field received criticism from residents who saw it as wasteful spending during a down economy after funds were taken out of the general balance to pay for construction costs. Most construction projects are typically paid through an Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (ESPLOST) approved by voters.

Theresa Perry, chief financial officer for the school system, said school officials could have used ESPLOST money on the new track and field because the ballot voters approved in July 2012 included “acquiring, constructing and equipping new school buildings and facilities, including but not limited to educational/athletic facilities ...”

But board members said they had already planned to use sales tax revenue to relocate Morris Innovative High School from its Morris Street location to Fort Hill in 2012 and to expand Dalton Middle School. Renovations at Fort Hill were $2.83 million, while Dalton Middle’s expansion is expected to cost approximately $10.7 million.

Board members defended the decision to build the practice track and field (actual games are played on Harmon Field, owned by city government) due to the poor condition of the track, while adding that a tax rate increase is seemingly inevitable in the next few years regardless of the expected $1.35 million construction cost.

That increase in taxes is due to a growing student body, board members said. School officials reported an increase from about 7,500 students last year to about 7,700 students this year.

An estimate for fiscal year 2015, which begins on July 1, 2014, assumes about $64 million in revenue and $75 in expenses to help teach the growing student body board members say they think will eventually level off.

If that estimation doesn’t change by next year, the remaining $6.08 million in the “rainy day” fund could be exhausted.

If school officials were to use up the $6.08 million, they would still have to come up with about another $5 million. That would require deep cuts to the budget, an increase of about 1.4 mills (or roughly $140 more annually for a homeowner with a $100,000 home) or a combination of both.

Board members have not said they will approve a tax increase next year and are reluctant to give a timetable on when taxes could go up or disclose any alternative funding solutions for next year.

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