Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Oconee County Schools Releases Tentative Fiscal Year 2024 Budget That Holds Millage Rate At Current Level

***Budget Projects Large Increase In Tax Digest, Likely Producing Tax Increase***

Oconee County Schools released its tentative budget for Fiscal Year 2024 on Monday, showing revenue of $103.9 million, up from $91.9 million in the current fiscal year, and expenditures of $106.0 million, up from $90.2 a year ago.

The revenue projection is based on growth in the tax digest of 7.3 percent and an unchanged millage rate of 15.5 mills.

The tax digest grew by 15.4 percent last year, and 5.6 percent the year before that.

The budget includes funding for 24 new positions ($2.3 million), a 5 percent salary increase for all employees ($3.7 million), new staffing for Dove Creek Middle School ($1.8 million), and salaries for the deputies at the entrances to the schools ($169,000).

The Board will take final action on the budget at its meeting on June 5, but the millage rate will not be set until later, likely at its Aug. 7 meeting, after release by the Oconee County Tax Commissioner of the Tax Digest, or the value of property in the county.

If the tax digest increases as a result of inflation, rather than growth from changed use of property, the 15.5 mill rate will result in what the state labels a tax increase, necessitating hearings on that increase before the rate is set by the Board.

Also at the meeting on Monday, the Board received a recommendation from Associate Superintendent Dallas LeDuff that the Board approve on Monday a new policy exempting employees from out of the county from paying tuition if their students attend Oconee County Schools.

LeDuff also recommended approval of an agreement with the County that would increase over the next three years the fees Oconee County Schools charges the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department for use of school sports facilities.

Board Reaction

Board reaction to the budget focused on the state requirement that the county contribute 5 mills of the final millage rate to funding what is called the QBE Formula, for Quality Basic Education, and on the fee the county charges for collection of school taxes.

Screen Shot Hammock (Left)
Questioning Harlow, Not Visible In School Video Recording
 (Official Picture Inserted)

In the tentative budget, the state allocation for QBE is $66.3 million, but the county has to contribute what is termed its Local Fair Share, which amounts to $12.8 million.

So the actual state QBE funding is $53.6 million.

Board Chair Kim Argo argued that the county was being forced to fund poorer school systems in the state, and Board Member Ryan Hammock said that the policy penalized counties with high property values.

The revenue projected from Property and Ad Valorem Taxes in the tentative budget is $45.9 million, but the county subtracts 2.5 percent ($1.1 million) from that for a Collection Cost.

Board Member Tim Burgess argued that the amount is excessive, given the amount of money the county spends on the Tax Commissioner Office, which collects the tax.

The Tax Commissioner is dependent on the Tax Assessor Office for determination of the Tax Digest.

Facility Fees

LeDuff told the Board “we have collaborated with Parks and Rec to draft a new agreement,” referring to the Oconee County Parks and Recreation Department.

The agreement was the one he had presented to the Board of Education at its retreat in January increasing the fee Oconee County Schools charges the county for use of its facilities from its current 60 percent of its set nonprofit fee to 100 percent in three years.

The agreement allows the county to charge Oconee County Schools for its use of county facilities, but Board of Commissioners Chair John Daniell has said it will not do during the duration of the agreement, which the Board is scheduled to discuss at its meeting tonight (Tuesday).

Board Member Amy Parrish said the schools were not charging the county the full costs of maintenance of the facilities. “That's why we're using the nonprofit rate,” she said.

Board Member Hammock said the fee is “only a portion of the maintenance cost for the time that they use.”

Burgess said the school system has a multi-million dollar investment in its gyms, which are used by Oconee County Parks and Recreation and “this agreement has never been about trying to recapture any of the costs to build those facilities.”

“It’s only an attempt to address some of the costs associated with maintaining those at the quality of that the school system requires.”

Fund Balance

The tentative Fiscal Year 2024 Budget that Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow presented to the Board on Monday showed an Estimated Unassigned Fund Balance of $13.7 million on June 30, 2024, or the end of the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget.

She estimated the Fund Balance to be $15.8 million on June 30 of this year, or the end of the current Fiscal Year.

Harlow achieved this low Fund Balance for the current Fiscal Year by listing $11.0 million as Committed Fund Balance and $8.0 million as Assigned Fund Balance.

She defined Assigned Fund Balance as “a portion of fund balance set aside for specific purposes-- future projects and initiatives.”

She listed Dove Creek Middle School Opening ($0.9 million), New School Generators ($1.2 million), Pavement Replacement Cycle ($4.0 million), and Tennis Court Lighting at the two high schools ($.8 million).

She said Committed Fund Balance was for “future debt payments on the 2021 General Obligation bonds” Oconee County Schools issued after it passed the Educational Local Option Sales Tax (ELOST) that went into effect in January of this year. The bonds are to be retired with ELOST revenues.

Burgess applauded Harlow for this accounting, saying “we've known since this ELOST started, since we began this process, we've got a pretty substantial debt service in front of us that has to be serviced over the course of the next five years.”

“I hope over the next several years we're able to continue to add to that to a level that will be sufficient so that based on projections and everything else that happens over the next five years that between that committed reserve and other collections we'll make and we'll be able to easily meet that debt service without any problems.”

Tuition For Employees

LeDuff told the Board, before Harlow spoke, that the budget she would present would include funding “to remove the tuition requirement for staff members who enroll their students that reside outside of Oconee County.”

LeDuff said the school Human Resources Division has studied recruitment and retention with school leaders and one of their recommendation was to make this change.

“They believe the removal of tuition will assist them in the recruitment and retention of educators as well as support staff,” LeDuff said.

The Tentative Fiscal Year 2024 Budget lists $3.3 million in Other Local Revenue, up from $3.1 million in the last fiscal year.

Base on the March Year To Date Budget Report Harlow gave the Board at its last meeting in April, Oconee County Schools had collected $159,042 in Tuition From Individuals so far this Fiscal Year.

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