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Hillsborough school incumbent wrongly claims credit for tax cut

TAMPA — In a campaign flier, Carol Kurdell, a 16-year veteran of the Hillsborough School Board, claims credit for dramatically cutting property taxes.

"Carol is a consistent proponent of cutting property taxes, lowering the millage rate by 21 percent and cutting wasteful government spending," the flier states.

But Kurdell had little to do with lowering property taxes.

Hillsborough School Board members aren't responsible for deciding property tax rates, also known as millage. The district must adopt the rates required by the Legislature or face stiff financial consequences.

After four terms in office, Kurdell knows the system well. When approving the district's annual budget in recent years, board members have carefully noted how the state ties their hands.

The district would forfeit millions in education funding if it didn't follow the state's required property tax rates.

Kurdell conceded the campaign mailer was misleading after the Times investigated her claim.

"My mistake," she said.

Kurdell said she requested information from district officials on the millage figures for the last decade. She said she thought the 21 percent reduction referenced a tiny slice of property taxes under local control.

But the information referred to the entire schools millage, which was clear on a spreadsheet the district provided to the Times.

Since 1998, Hillsborough property owners have seen the schools tax rate drop from 9.531 mills to 7.523 last year.

That includes what is known as the "discretionary" millage, the sliver that the School Board can set. But the discretionary millage amounted to only 0.51 mils. And it hasn't changed in a decade.

"It truly is an honest mistake on my part because I thought it was the discretionary millage," Kurdell said of the claim on her campaign piece. "But if it's all of (the millage), and it's all gone down, that's a good thing."

Later, Kurdell called back and changed her position. She asserted the statement itself is true, and that's what counts.

"They have been reduced over the past 10 years and we approve it," Kurdell said, acknowledging that "we're very limited in what we can change in it."

Kurdell made other mistakes on the flier.

She took credit for "saving precious taxpayer dollars" through "innovative contracts." As an example, she pointed to "the School Board's long-term contract to purchase gasoline at $2.95 per gallon."

Her numbers are wrong. Hillsborough has been buying diesel fuel for $2.66 a gallon since March. The contract ends in late October, according to school officials.

Kurdell said she got the number from district officials. She later clarified that a campaign consultant added on top a tax that the district doesn't pay.

Kurdell also took credit for giving teachers a big raise. The campaign piece stated: "Over the past two years alone Carol has managed to increase teacher pay by 18 percent."

It doesn't note that she was one of seven elected officials involved in the decision.

"Well, you know. The board did it. I was part of the board," Kurdell said.

Though Kurdell claimed millage and fuel mistakes were honest ones, she deserves little credit for property taxes and has no excuse for not catching the fuel price error. Our ruling is false.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit The Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

The statement

"Carol is a consistent proponent of cutting property taxes, lowering the millage rate by 21 percent and cutting wasteful government spending."

Carol Kurdell campaign flier

The ruling

False. The Legislature, not the School Board, sets nearly all the district's tax rate. And the fuel and price were wrong.

Hillsborough school incumbent wrongly claims credit for tax cut 08/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 25, 2008 3:17pm]
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