School gets nod from panel
It isn’t what the Carter County School System was asking for, but it’s a start toward a new middle school in Stoney Creek.
A divided Carter County Budget Committee voted Tuesday night to propose a $2.47 tax rate for the 2014-2015 fiscal year and rejected another 15-cent increase to pay for the school.
But at meeting’s end, the board also agreed to take whatever money is returned to the general fund from the 2013-2014 fiscal year and appropriate it to the schools.
No dollar figure was attached to Committee member Sonja Culler’s motion, but when she asked County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach if it could be as much as $850,000, Deloach said it was possible.
Deloach said her office doesn’t know how much will be returned because final expenditures and revenues are still being processed.
She said she hopes to have the full number by the July 19 County Commission meeting.
Culler’s motion came after a divided 5-3 vote on the tax rate and lengthy discussions on debt service funding and the proposed school, and the approval of the overall budget for the fiscal year.
The $2.47 rate includes 12 cents dedicated to debt service.
After the debt service vote, the school project took center stage.
Committee Chairman Harry Sisk stepped down from his capacity as chairman of the committee, temporarily passing the gavel to Tom “Yogi” Bowers, so he could make a motion.
He said he felt the school system had “put the cart before the horse” in asking the county to fund a new school without plans from an architect in place. He then made a motion to direct the school system to use existing funds in its budget allocated for capital outlay projects to “get the ball rolling” on getting designs for the project completed. The motion was seconded by Bill Armstrong.
Member Steve Chambers voiced his opposition to Sisk’s idea, calling it “unfair” to ask the school system to use its capital outlay funds for architect services.
“I think if we do not do this with this administration here that school will not ever be built,” he said. “I don’t want to be remembered as a commissioner that built the jail. I want to be remembered as a commissioner who did something for the schools.”
Committee member Nancy Brown responded to Chambers’ statements by saying it was not a matter of the committee opposing the school project.
“I think we all want a school, but there are too many unanswered questions. Anyone with sense knows we need that school,” Brown said. “I don’t think we can bind the next Commission and tie their hands to this school without knowing all the answers.”
Sisk said he also supported the school project, but that the intent of his motion was to get the project moving forward without an additional burden on the taxpayers.
Asked to address Sisk’s motion, Director of Schools Kevin Ward said using the capital outlay funds to cover the architects fees would put the school system “in a bad way” with its budget; he said the capital outlay funds have already been allocated to other projects. He continued that it would be a bad business decision on the part of the county to invest $500,000 toward the architect’s fees with no guarantee from the county that the project would move forward from there.
“If we invest a half-a-million dollars and go nowhere with it, then we have basically wasted $500,000 for a set of designs that are going to sit on a shelf,” Ward said.
According to Ward, on a home with an assessed value of $100,000, the 15-cent increase on the tax rate requested by the school system to fund the project would result in the homeowner seeing an increase of $37.50 per year, or approximately $3.16 per month.
After a lengthy discussion, Sisk’s motion ultimately failed with only 3 votes in favor.
Sisk then made a motion to take $250,000 from the county’s fund balance and give it to the school system to help cover architect’s fees for the project. That motion failed on a tie vote of 4-4.
Committee member Charlie Bayless then moved to leave the tax rate at $2.33, fund no increase to debt service and to take 10 cents from the general fund and give it to the school system. He said next year, the 10 cents could be removed from the schools budget and restored to the general fund. The motion was seconded by Chambers.
Deloach warned against the motion and the effect it would have on future funding.
“I’m warning you, you have to keep up your maintenance of effort,” she said. “Once you bump them up you have to maintain that level. You can’t take it back next year.”
She further warned them that the 10 cents could not be used for the school project, because money for the project would have to come from the debt service fund.
The motion failed on a vote of 3-5 with Bayless, Chambers and Lawrence Hodge casting the votes in favor of the motion.
Hodge then made a motion to add 15 cents to the tax rate for the building of a new school. The motion was seconded by Chambers but failed on a vote of 3-5, with Armstrong, Chambers and Hodge casting the favorable votes.
Sisk opened the meeting with a plea to committee members to increase funding for debt service.
He said the county created the problem in the budget by taking funding away from debt service to cover other expenditures without raising the tax rate.
“Unless we do something this year, we will not be able to pay our bills. We need to fund the debt service budget. To do that we need to put back what we have taken out to get us back on solid ground,” Sisk said. “We have reached a point where we have to correct it. We have to balance the operating budget.”
Sisk asked the committee to approve an additional 12 cents in funding for the debt service to cover the shortfall. During previous budget committee meetings, Carter County Finance Director Ingrid Deloach told members that if additional funding was not approved, there would be a deficit of approximately $900,000 in the debt service budget.
Brown made a motion to add 12 cents to the tax rate for debt service funding, saying that she did not want to raise taxes but that “our bills have to be paid.” Culler seconded her motion.
During discussion, committee member Steve Chambers brought up plans for a new middle school in the Stoney Creek community and the funding requested by the county school system. Sisk stopped that line of discussion, saying the proposed school project was not related to the motion up for discussion.
After discussion, the motion passed on a 5-3 vote, with Brown, Culler, Sisk and committee members Bowers and Armstrong voting in favor. Chambers, Bayless and Hodge cast opposing votes.
After the debate on the proposed school project, members of the committee approved the budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year and set the tax rate at $2.47. The increase in the tax rate includes the additional 12 cents to debt service and an additional 1.75 cents to cover the county’s obligation to maintenance of effort funding.
The vote on the tax rate passed on another 5-3 split, with Armstrong, Bowers, Brown, Culler and Sisk voting in favor of the tax rate and Bayless, Chambers and Hodge casting dissenting votes.
Culler’s motion on the school funding came at the end of the meeting and passed on a split vote.
A public hearing on the budget was scheduled for Tuesday, July 14, at 5:15 p.m.