Despite pleas from school officials, Beaufort County leaders on Monday maintained support for a lower-than-requested tax rate for schools and a tax break for owners who renovate historic properties.
On both issues, County Council voted to overrule recommendations from the county Board of Education. Board members have said the school district's property tax rate, which is set by the council, must be raised to meet revenue projections for its 2014-15 budget. The school board also has voted not to participate in the city of Beaufort's Bailey Bill program, which would lock in low tax rates for some owners who improve their property.
Some council members had reservations about overriding school district recommendations, but only Councilmen Gerald Dawson and Bill McBride voted against either issue.
"I still have great concerns about how council acted," McBride said. "To come back and undercut the school budget at this time is not fair and not ethical."
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The council will take its final vote and hold public hearings on both issues Sept. 22.
District officials fear the school system faces a second consecutive year of budget deficits -- and perhaps more -- if it is forced to participate in Beaufort's tax-break program, according to superintendent Jeff Moss.
Council members overwhelmingly support the Bailey Bill. The county attorney and others believe that if county government participates in the program aimed to create incentives to upgrade dilapidated properties, the school district is legally obligated to participate, as well.
The program, named for the state bill that created it, freezes the taxable value of a historic property at its pre-renovation value for 10 years. In exchange, an owner must invest more than 75 percent of the property's market value in renovations, according to city officials.
Last month, school board members voted not to participate because of concerns it would erode the district's tax base by encouraging homeowners to claim a rehabilitated property as their primary residence. Under state law, primary residences aren't taxed for school operating expenses.
"I think the Bailey Bill is a good idea, and I'm sorry we don't see eye to eye with the school district on this, because the last thing I want to do is find another issue we don't agree on," Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said.
Even though McBride supports the bill, he cast the lone vote against it Monday because it forces the district to participate.
"I think we've shortchanged them already. To put another burden on them by passing this particular ordinance ... I just don't think it'd be fair to them," McBride said.
SCHOOL TAX RATE
The council also stood firm on a 103.5-mill school tax rate it set last month.
Council members voted Aug. 25 to raise the rate, but not by enough for the school district to avoid a second straight year of budget deficits, school officials say.
The district estimates it will have to cut $2 million from its current budget as a result, according to Moss.
When the council approved the district's budget in June, it calculated that 103.5 mills would raise $114.9 million for public schools. Since then, district and county finance staffs have adjusted the estimate, and school officials have said the tax rate would need to be set at 105 mills to raise that amount. The difference would be about $12 per year on a home worth $200,000.
Despite pleas from Moss and four other school leaders Monday, most council members said the 103.5-mill rate is the best compromise they can offer.
Dawson and McBride disagreed, casting the only dissenting votes.
"It shows the public clearly that we have no intent of funding the school district with what we put in the ordinance," Dawson said. "It's designed purposely to ensure they will not have enough money and have to use their fund balance."
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.