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Decreased state funding means Hernando County School District may put burden on taxpayers

BROOKSVILLE — The Hernando school district's chief financial officer calls it "the shift."

As she made her way through a slide show on next year's budget numbers during a School Board workshop last week, Desiree Henegar felt compelled to emphasize an overarching theme that will play a big role in the district's financial picture — and in any debate among board members to hike school taxes by a quarter mill.

"The burden is being shifted to the local taxpayer," Henegar told the board.

In other words, the state is moving toward a funding model that requires school districts to cover more of the bill to educate students, Henegar said.

Consider that state funding for transportation will decrease by $2.2 million, according to figures Henegar presented to the board.

Hernando will receive about $1 million for instructional materials this year — about half the amount that came in last year.

The district has projected general fund revenues for next year of nearly $160 million. That's about $1.6 million more than last year.

But it's a tenuous number that doesn't take into account several key factors, Henegar said.

The roughly $15 million in stimulus money over the next two years helps "plug the hole," Henegar said.

"My concern is year three," she said.

The state has projected a decrease in enrollment in Hernando of about 100 students. But the district estimates the drop could be as high 500 students. That's worth about $2.4 million in state and local funding.

Henegar had hoped to transfer some $7.7 million out of the district's capital fund, but now she's unsure if there is enough unallocated cash to do that.

The amount of school taxable property value is expected to drop by about 11.2 percent, according to the property appraiser's office. That means the district will bring in nearly $1.3 million less per mill than it did this year. The final rate was set at 7.66 mills last year.

Starting this year, the state legislature gave districts the option to levy an additional quarter mill for either operating or capital expenses for two years with a supermajority school board vote. The additional levy would have to go to voters in the form of a referendum in the third year.

Putting aside that a tax increase in a recession is a political hot potato, Henegar warned the levy might not make financial sense.

Levying the extra quarter mill could cost Hernando some of a state supplement given to counties with property values below the state average, but if so it's still unclear by how much, Henegar said.

The quarter mill would tack $25 onto the property tax bill of a homeowner with a $125,000 home and a $25,000 homestead exemption.

Hernando Classroom Teachers president Joe Vitalo said he believes the district would bring in more money to help save programs. That's worth the additional tax burden, he said.

"It's not a backbreaker," Vitalo said Monday. "I think the taxpayers here are willing to take care of the kids."

"You explain that to the taxpayer right now," board member Pat Fagan said to that.

Fagan said he wants to see the entire budget before making a decision on the quarter mill but said the situation would have to be dire for him to consider a tax hike.

Despite the recession, most of the 67 districts in the state appear to be at least considering the move, said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association.

School districts have the same concerns that dominate budget talks here in Hernando, Melton said.

The association continues to rue the missed opportunities by lawmakers to bring in more money, such as closing tax exemption loopholes and sales tax for online purchases.

"There is an irony that the Legislature that has worked so diligently to reduce property taxes was not motived to pursue other options that would avoid requiring school districts from having to levy those taxes," Melton said.

In preparation for the next budget hearing on June 16, Henegar is working this week on the appropriations side of the budget — that is, what the district has to pay for next year.

"We're pretty much going to eat up every bit of those revenues," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Decreased state funding means Hernando County School District may put burden on taxpayers 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 10:04pm]
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