Beaufort News

County, school district at odds over special tax funds

A disagreement over whether Beaufort County schools have been shorted money from a special tax district might come to a head today, when attorneys for the county and school district are expected to discuss the matter during a conference call.

If they still don't agree, the issue could be sent to binding arbitration. One way or another, members of Beaufort County Council and the Beaufort County Board of Education say a final resolution must be found.

"I think the fighting is so detrimental to this county," said superintendent Valerie Truesdale during a meeting between the panels Thursday. "We are honor-bound to say, 'OK, let's get to something we that can all agree is truth.' "

On one issue, school and county staff have found common cause.

School officials say they should be receiving $8,600 for each pupil who resides in the New River TIF district, formed in 2002 to finance two college campuses -- the University of South Carolina Beaufort and the Technical College of the Lowcountry -- on U.S. 278.

When it was created, the district contained no students.

Today, it has 148.

County CFO David Starkey said county attorneys agree the district is entitled to those funds -- about $1.2 million next year.

"Now that we've been given the student populations, we'll make the calculations," he said.

Another disagreement remains.

About $2 million that the district pays into the TIF fund has been taken from its general tax collections. District officials contend it should have come from their state allocation. As a result, they say their baseline tax rate was lowered too much by a roll back in 2009 after property was reassessed.

The Board of Education passed a budget Tuesday that includes a 1.8-percent tax hike -- which would mean $2 million in new revenue -- which officials say would correct this roll back.

Starkey said county attorneys disagree with this interpretation.

"My feeling is, let's get the two attorneys together (and) let them see where they disagree ..." said Board of Education vice chairman George Wilson. He suggested binding arbitration, wherein the two bodies would delegate the decision to a impartial third party.

If county council does not approve the tax hike at its meeting Monday, the district would need to cut further or spend another $2 million from reserves.

County Councilman Stu Rodman said the bodies could discuss the issue over the summer.

"As a practical matter, I don't see us resolving that Monday evening," he said.

Follow reporter Kyle Peterson at twitter.com/EyeOnBeaufortCo.

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