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School Board approves bigger budget

The School Board has given initial approval to a $162.5-million budget for the coming year that is larger than the current budget while carrying a slightly lower tax rate.

The budget tops this year's $152-million spending plan and calls for an 8.667 mill tax rate. While the rate is lower, the district will raise nearly 2 percent more in revenues because of the increase in the county's property values.

A mill is $1 of tax for every $1,000 of appraised, taxable property value. For the owner of a house assessed at $75,000, with a $25,000 homestead exemption, the school portion of the tax bill will be $433. That compares to $439 last year. Those whose property increased in value last year will see a higher tax bill.

The board on Tuesday heard specifics from its finance officials on how the money will be allocated.

Some of the big-ticket expenses in the capital budget include $3-million to build a new Renaissance Center, $2.9-million for renovations at Homosassa Elementary School, $1.2-million to buy a site for a high school and $1.1-million for continuing work at Citrus High School.

The budget calls for a total of $38-million in capital projects with $18.6-million of that coming from various sources, including property tax revenue this year. The rest will be paid for by dollars rolled over from last year's budget for projects that take more than a year.

Also in the budget are funds for automatic pay raises for increased employee experience.

Finance director Sam Hurst said that after the district sets aside money in reserve funds throughout the budget, it will still have an estimated $5.4-million in undesignated reserves. That's 6.28 percent of the general fund budget, more than what the board has said it wants in the contingency fund.

Board member Carol Snyder said she was worried about sending any sort of tax increase to citizens with a contingency fund so high. "How do I explain that to taxpayers?" she asked.

Hurst said the district has always said it wants to keep 3 to 5 percent in its emergency fund in case changes occur in state funding. "It looks to me like a lot of money, but it's not," Hurst said. "It's big business, and it's complicated."

The state's budget for the coming year says districts will receive 9.1 percent in new money. However, when student growth, rising health insurance costs and money replaced after cuts last year are factored in, the districts are really getting only 1.7 percent in new money, School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick told the board.

The board's action means the tax rate can't be raised but could be lowered in upcoming budget sessions. The first public hearing will be 5:30 p.m. Tuesday with a final hearing and approval Sept. 10.