Beaufort News

School board seeking 3 percent property tax hike to fund next year's budget

  • While the Beaufort County Board of Education plans to hold the line on operating costs, it is asking for a 3-percent property tax increase to fund next school year's budget.
  • During a five-hour work session Friday, the board gave preliminary approval to a budget that includes more than $5 million in cuts approved earlier this year. Cost reductions include increasing class sizes, cutting about 80 positions and reducing budgets for extracurricular activities and school supplies.

    Those savings, however, will be offset by rising costs in other areas, said Phyllis White, the district's operational services chief.

    For instance, the district anticipates paying more next year for contracted services, utilities and employee benefits, such as health insurance. The budget also includes the annual raises that reward teachers for additional years of experience and degrees earned.

    The trade-off between the budget reductions and increases will bring the district's 2011-12 general-fund budget to $175 million, the same amount as the current year's spending plan.

    "I think this proposal shows that we have made cuts -- significant cuts -- to offset the increases that are built in," board member Wayne Carbiener said.

    WHAT IT WOULD COST

    But making the cuts doesn't mean the board won't seek a tax increase.

    White anticipates tax collections will be about $5 million short of projections in the current year's spending plan. The district will have to make up the difference by drawing from its $30-million reserve fund, she said.

    It would be unrealistic to expect a tax rate that didn't generate enough money this year to fully fund an equal budget next year, she said.

    To avoid further depleting its reserves or making additional cuts, board members said they want to raise taxes on non-resident homes and commercial and personal properties. State law exempts resident homeowners from property taxes to fund school operations.

    The 3-percent increase is slightly less than the 3.35-percent allowed by state law. It would raise taxes on a $250,000 home by about $40, White said.

    The hike must be approved by Beaufort County Council because the school board doesn't have the power to levy taxes.

    Even with the increase, the property tax rate for school operations in Beaufort County will remain the lowest of the state's 85 school districts, White said. It would be the first tax increase the district has received for school operations since 2008.

    "We have managed to open six new schools without having a tax increase in the last two years," White said.

    VOWING TO FIGHT

    Last year, County Council rejected a 2 percent property tax increase requested by the school board, telling the board to instead use its savings to cover any shortfall.

    Board members said they aren't optimistic County Council will approve a tax increase this year, but they pledged to fight for it.

    "I'm willing to stand my ground as long as I can," board member Bill Evans said. " ... This is what is right for the students and the children of Beaufort County."

    "We go in there with what we need and we fight as hard as we can to get it," board member Laura Bush said.

    The board said in February it would immediately initiate discussions about closing schools for the 2012-13 school year if the district doesn't get the tax increase.

    Some board members repeated that point Friday.

    "The county would be giving us no choice if we do not get an increase," board member Steven Morello said.

    The board has planned public meetings to gather input on its budget for early May.

    A first reading of the budget before Beaufort County Council is scheduled for May 9.

    The board cautioned the budget given preliminary approval Friday might change over the next couple of months as more information about state education funding and local tax collections becomes available.

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