County Council unsure about school budget's proposed tax hike

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comMay 27, 2014 

The Beaufort County Board of Education might have to cut back on its budget for the next fiscal year, which calls for a $10-million spending increase.

Several members of the County Council's Finance Committee said Tuesday they were concerned about the school district's budget request, which would require a 7.2-mill tax hike.

That tax increase would cover the spending increases the district faces, largely as a result of unfunded state mandates and the expense of growing enrollment, district chief operational services officer Phyllis White said. It would also shore up a tax-revenue shortfall of about $4 million for this year.

Councilmen Jerry Stewart and Stewart Rodman said they prefer a budget that keeps the school district's revenue neutral for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

"If you did not get the full 7-mill increase ... and we asked you to absorb some of those other increases in your budget, I know it would be painful, but I think that's reasonable to ask you to start from that point," Stewart said.

Remaining revenue neutral would leave the district with a deficit, school officials say.

Last summer, County Council approved a school budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year expecting tax collections of $114.8 million. However, inaccurate projections have left the district more than $4 million short in revenue.

The school board needs at least a 4.1-mill increase to cover that shortfall. District superintendent Jeff Moss said he doesn't see it as a tax increase, but as returning revenue that already had been approved.

"That would be the value we committed to each other last year that we would operate the schools under and provide education to more than 20,000 students," Moss told the committee. "In my mind, to do something different is asking us to cut our budget 12 months after the fact."

Moss could not say exactly what would be cut if the tax increase was rejected, but it likely would mean forgoing expansion of some programs or halting plans to start some new ones.

Council unanimously approved the district's budget on the first of three readings Tuesday. The second reading will be at 4 p.m. June 9 in council chambers in Beaufort.

"We've presented what we believe our needs are as a district," Moss said. "And council will now reflect on that and make their funding decision on what they will give us."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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