District still loses out on education funding

Anyone who has ever tried to understand tax increment financing knows how complicated it can be.

Accounting for and distributing property taxes collected in these special tax districts has been a bone of contention since local officials first started using them to pay for public projects about a decade ago.

Now we have a new reason to shake our heads over the concept. In a report to the state, Beaufort County auditor Sharon Burris overstated the school district's taxable property base by about $200 million. The state uses that value to calculate an important component of education funding.

Burris' mistake was in not checking work done using Manatron, a software system that came online about three years ago. She assumed taxable values in the special tax districts had been accounted for correctly. They had not.

The problem was spotted by Phyllis White, the district's chief of operational services. While serving on a statewide committee looking at education funding, she noticed a discrepancy between the figure reported to the state and the taxable value provided by David Starkey, the county's chief financial officer, for the district's budgeting process.

Starkey has taken on the task of keeping track of the tax-increment financing for the various districts and making sure the money for the projects gets to the right place and in the right amounts. No small task when you consider that some of the special tax districts were once large tracts of trees, but are now subdivided into hundreds of lots and commercial centers. His work is separate from Burris' duties.

Coming up with a base value and current value for each newly subdivided piece is time consuming and expensive, Starkey says. He has devised a way to do it, but it's not one that can be plugged into the software.

The bad news is that the state formula that looks at the school district's ability to raise money through property taxes was off by $200 million. The good news (sort of) is the district didn't lose out on any money.

Under the current formula, Beaufort County doesn't get any money from the Education Finance Act funds. And even after subtracting the $200 million in taxable value, we still won't get any of that money.

State Sen. Tom Davis of Beaufort is pushing a bill that would make that formula more fair and bring an estimated $1 million to the school district. His formula would more accurately measure the district's ability to raise money through property taxes. It recognizes that the district can't look to property taxes on owner-occupied homes as a source of revenue for school operations.

Davis knows it will be tough to get the bill passed because any money that comes to Beaufort County is money other districts won't get. And Beaufort County isn't the only county hurt by the current formula. We wish him well. The system now isn't right.

In the meantime, we call for a moratorium on blaming a software program for county ills. By now, every county office that uses Manatron is on notice to check the work.