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Hernando School Board won't levy additional quarter-mill tax

BROOKSVILLE — The School Board has decided against using its new power to raise the tax rate by 25 cents for every $1,000 of taxable property value.

The board voted 2-2 Tuesday night not to use the option granted them by state lawmakers this year to levy an additional quarter mill.

The tough economic times call for lighter tax loads, board members agreed.

"We have a number of people out there without jobs and I cannot at this time support an additional increase," said board member Pat Fagan, who voted against the levy along with Sandra Nicholson. "The citizens need us now more than ever," he said.

The vote means the school district's highest possible tax rate will be 7.47 mills, or $747 for a $125,000 home with a $25,000 exemption.

With the additional quarter mill, the tax bill would have been $772 for the same home. That still would have been lower than last year's rate of 7.77 mills, or a $777 tax bill for that home.

Most of the school millage is set by the state. That portion increased slightly this year because property values dropped.

But overall, the tax rate would have decreased slightly from last year even if the board had decided to approve the quarter mill because the district will not have to levy an additional millage to pay for debt service this year.

A supermajority vote — four of the five board members — was needed to approve the quarter mill. Since only four members were present, the vote needed to be unanimous, board attorney Paul Carland said. Board Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield was out of town Tuesday. Bonfield has said she likely wouldn't vote for the additional levy.

Board members James Yant and John Sweeney wanted to go the route that many districts have already taken, which is to give a tentative approval to the quarter mill before millage rates are mailed to property owners. The board by law can vote in September for a final millage that is lower but not higher than the tentative rate.

"That would give us time to further look at the issues," Sweeney said. "I don't think this is something we should dismiss at this point."

While the extra quarter mill would bring in an additional $2.5 million for the district from local taxpayers, chief financial officer Desiree Henegar had previously warned the board that the move could cost Hernando some $1.6 million in so-called compression funding next year. That money is doled out to compensate districts in counties where property values are lower than the state average.

If that figure holds true, the district would actually have come out only about $880,000 ahead with the additional quarter mill levy, Henegar said.

Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association, made a final plea for the board to take advantage of the option so Hernando's per pupil funding doesn't fall further behind other districts. "Tallahassee is saying it's up to you," Vitalo said. "Sometimes you've got to hold your nose and vote, and today is one of those days."

Only a handful of residents showed up to Tuesday's hearing. Among them was Ed Harrold of Istachatta, who urged the board to provide as much tax relief as possible. "It really helps the average homeowner and family in the end," Harrold said. "Get through this and better times will be around the corner."

The district has projected expenditures of $154.2 million next year. The unreserved fund balance is $7 million, or about 5 percent of projected revenues of $152.6 million. The state recommends at least 3 percent.

But the district will have to return about $2.2 million in state money for a projected attendance drop of 500 students, and use about $3.5 million to operate the new high school in Weeki Wachee that opens next year, Henegar said.

That leaves about $1 million in the rainy day fund, or about 0.74 percent of revenues.

Most of the state's 67 school districts are expected to approve the quarter mill option to help make up for budget deficits, but local officials throughout the state are griping that the Legislature, rather than stepping up to increase state funding for education, is forcing school boards to shift the burden to local taxpayers.

Nicholson directed her frustration toward lawmakers Tuesday.

"I think it takes a lot of nerve for the state of Florida … to tell us we have to tax our people because you are failing your responsibility as told in the Constitution," Nicholson said.

The district's second hearing is slated for Sept. 15. The board must submit a final budget to the state by Sept. 18.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando School Board won't levy additional quarter-mill tax 07/28/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 28, 2009 8:50pm]
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