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September 29, 2012

School board decides on four-mill increase, not five

Four to one.

That was the vote by the members of the Whitfield County Board of Education during a called meeting on Friday to raise the property tax rate to 18.756 mills instead of a planned 19.756. The four-mill increase is expected to collect $28 million instead of $30 million for the $97 million budget adopted in June.

Board member Rodney Lock voted against the increase, saying it was “still too big of an impact,” while Superintendent Danny Hayes said he wished an increase in the property tax had happened sooner.

“If I knew what I know now, I would’ve pushed for an earlier, gradual millage rate increase,” said Hayes. “We tried to hold off four years ago because things were bad and we thought they would get better. It didn’t and now we have this. I’m sorry, we’re backed into a corner.”

Asked after the meeting why he voted against the four-mill increase, Lock said, “Everybody’s struggling and I didn’t want to go up that much. We’ve all been back and forth the past couple of weeks. It’s nothing against those guys, it was a tight budget with what I was wanting to do, but I kind of felt it would work.”

Lock said he wanted to do a two-mill increase, but “we couldn’t make it work at that. I told them I would go three and I stuck to what I thought was right. ... It would have been real tight with what I wanted to do, we wouldn’t have had any reserves.”

He said the increase is not something the school board members took lightly.

“We were all worried, it’s been probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” he said. “We had a budget that would work for five years and then the state started cutting us and we didn’t have a choice.”

Board member Thomas Barton motioned for the vote and it was seconded by Chairman Louis Fordham.

Chief Financial Officer Ron Hale said he couldn’t advise anything lower than a four-mill increase because that tax rate will only be sufficient if economic conditions stay the same.

“We have things we know about and we can plan for them,” said Hale. “But we don’t have any reserves for the unknown. We’re buying time at this point. The millage rate of four (increase) will keep us in the black till 2014. None of this will carry us into 2015. By then, we will be $6 million under water even if we went with five mills today.”

Fordham said it’s a move the school board has to make.

“I’ve seen this school system squeeze blood from a turnip,” he said. “We’re not buying a Cadillac, as one speaker said (at a Thursday public hearing, one of the three held on the possibility of a tax increase), we’re already in economy mode. We’re 169 out of 180 in the state (in spending by school systems). If nothing changes, we’ll have to think about making cuts.”

More cuts, said Hale.

“We’ve already cut,” he said. “From our perspective, we’ve cut staffing and money almost 50 percent. There’s not a whole lot of fat left to cut. With 85 percent of our general fund going to salaries, the only meaningful cuts left are going to be people.”

If the school system is going to recover, citizens need to talk to their state legislators, board members said.

“We’re going to have to go after Atlanta,” said Fordham. “We can’t just wait and see what happens. We need the people to do this. Educators already are and it’s not making a significant difference.”

Hale agreed and said state officials should be questioned about the decisions they’re making.

“It is listed in the Georgia Constitution that education is a primary responsibility (of state government),” said Hale. “I don’t think the people believe that right now.”

The new rate will be on Dec. 20 tax bills.

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