After hearing from 13 speakers who opposed the proposed 15.0 mill school property tax rate or at least the way the Board managed it, the Oconee County Board of Education adopted that rate unanimously on Monday evening.
Opponents focused on the 9.53 percent tax increase the rate represents, the way the Board handled the budget process, and questions about the need for the $34.8 million budget surplus in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget for Oconee County Schools.
Board Member Tim Burgess primed the comments by stating before any citizen was given a chance to speak that the Board needs a large surplus to finance projects it has committed to, to pay off debt from bonds the Board has sold, and to manage routine operations of the schools.
Ian Taylor, the first citizen to speak, challenged Burgess and the Board by pointing out that the budget the Board had adopted on June 5 used $2.1 million from that surplus to balance the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget but changed course when the final size of the tax digest was released..
“Three weeks ago, you were willing to spend $2.1 million from reserves,” he said. “Now you are not. What changed in three weeks?”
No one responded to Taylor, and, in fact, none of the Board or school staff even acknowledged that the difference between the budget adopted on June 5 and the one presented to the public on July 24 was a $2.3 million increase in the projected Fund Balance at the end of the Fiscal Year 2024.
That increase results from $2.3 million increase in revenue in the new budget.
The meeting on Monday evening began as had the two tax hearings on July 24 with School Chief Financial Officer Liz Harlow outlining the basics of the budget and the reason why the hearing was being held.
|Unanimous Vote To Approve Millage Rate|
The four citizens who spoke at the July 24 hearings also opposed the tax increase reflected in the proposed millage rate.
Because the budget does not roll back the millage rate to 13.695 to compensate for inflationary growth in the Tax Digest, the rate of 15.0 is considered to be an increase in the taxes of 9.53 percent.
When Harlow had finished, Board Member Ryan Hammock asked Harlow to elaborate on the health benefits, salary increases, and step increases in the budget.
Burgess then began his questioning of Harlow to get her to tell why she divided the $34.8 million projected Fund Balance for June 30 of this year in the Fiscal Year 2024 Budget into three parts.
Harlow said that the $11.0 million Committed Fund Balance is for bond payments, the $8.0 million Assigned Fund Balance is for projects the Board has approved, and the remaining $15.8 million is Unassigned Fund Balance.
Hammock then asked Harlow to explain the importance of the having the money to pay off the bonds when they come due, and Board Member Michael Ransom asked about the need for the Unassigned Fund Balance.
Harlow said in her presentation that the budget the Board approved on June 5 and the one she was presenting at the meeting on Monday differed only in terms of the top part of the budget, the revenue side, which she presented separately from the spending half of the budget.
But the budget actually differs on the bottom part as well, for that is where the decision of the Board to not withdraw $2.1 million from reserves is shown.
The bottom of the budget also shows the growth in the projected fund balance from $13,661,263 to $15,913,615.
Harlow took a little more than four minutes for her presentation, and the comments by Hammock and Burgess and Ransom consumed just less than another 12 minutes.
Taylor, the first citizen to speak, said “I don’t accept the premise of the argument that the millage rate is needed to cover the spending requested.”
“The fact of the matter is, as you mentioned, that you accepted a budget that did not have the income to cover the spending,” he continued. “You accepted the budget without any push back or meaningful discussion.”
“The law states that we must fund public education,” he said. “I’m quite prepared to give the schools every dime they need. What I’m not, however, prepared to do is give them a blank check for everything they want.”
Taylor said the Board should cut spending or cut into reserves rather than increase the taxes.
Taylor was followed by Victoria Cruz, who said “it appears that the School Board is using the citizens as a private piggy bank.”
That was a reference repeated by several speakers who followed.
Former state Representative Chuck Williams was the third speaker to the microphone, and he was the most strident of the evening’s speakers.
|Williams With Mailer|
“You’ve already published a millage rate of 15 percent (mills) that you’ve yet to vote on,” he said, holding up the 2022-23 Annual Report distributed in mailboxes in the county last week. “This was in the mail puff that we got last week.”
“We continue to hear that these are required hearings,” he said. “I’ve read that. I’ve heard it tonight.”
“I would think if I was going to extract a million dollars a week out of local taxpayers you would want to hear from us tonight rather than viewing these as required hearings that the state, thankfully, put in place or otherwise we wouldn’t be here tonight,” he said.
The property and ad valorem taxes in the budget will be just less than $48 million.
“At what point are you going to put your foot down and tell this administration you’ve got needs and you’ve got wants,” he said. “We’re going to ask the taxpayers to fund the needs of this system, not the wants of this system.”
David Lawrence also mentioned the use the 15 mills published in the distributed Annual Report in his comments, and Ransom said “I think that was a typo because that was for last fiscal year, 2022-23.” The millage rate for last year, however, was 15.5.
More Comments Followed
Esther Porter told the Board that “I’m here to oppose the millage rate, of course.”
“Your actions show us, not only me” she continued, “that you’ve not been good stewards with our money.”
“I know that it takes money to run a wonderful school system,” she said, “and we do have one of the best in the state,” she said. “And we know that, but it bothers me that we can have $34 million sitting over in a fund.”
Suzannah Heimel asked “How many more times will our citizens allow the Board of Education to run and get elected on a platform of conservatism only to quickly change their minds and vote as they see fit?”
The final speaker of the evening had not signed up for the public hearing but for the actual meeting where the Board was to vote on the millage rate.
Laura King told the Board that there are a lot of stresses on public school systems around the country and “I think a tax increase is not going to help the situation.”
The called meeting that followed the hearing began with Harlow again reviewing the budget and budget process with the Board.
Burgess asked her to repeat what she had said about publicity for the tax hearings.
After King spoke, Williams asked if he could come to the podium again, and, after first denying him access, Board Chair Kim Argo relented and allowed Williams to speak.
Williams used that time to dispute with Burgess about how well Oconee County Schools had publicized the hearings.
Burgess said the meetings were publicized on the school web site, and Williams said they were not publicized in the school Facebook page.
“It’s on the web site,” Burgess said.
“I said Facebook,” Williams said. “Do you know the difference?”
Call For Motion And Vote
When Argo called for a motion on the millage rate, Burgess again asked to speak.
|Burgess Before Making Motion |
“Before I make this motion, I want to make a couple of other comments,” he said, “about some information that I’ve kind of put together recently that you’ll never read about.”
“You’ll not read about this because it doesn’t fit the narrative that has been put together the last couple of weeks about out budget and what we’re doing,” he said.
“In 2013–10 years ago, just 10 years ago–our millage rate was 18.5 and the student population in Oconee was 6,686,” he said. “Ten years later, just 10 years later, our millage is now being proposed to go to 15.”
“That’s a drop of 3.5 mills in 10 years,” he said. “But that’s at the same time that the population of our students has grown to 8,683. That’s almost 2,000 more students in 10 years with a drop in the millage rate of 3.5.”
“So the notion that the Board over the last decade has not been both responsible to growth and responsible to fiscally manage it, the tax revenues, just doesn’t add up to me,” he said.
Burgess talked for nearly six minutes before making the motion, which was seconded by Ransom.
Parrish said she wanted to discuss the motion before voting.
“We hear repeatedly that we don’t think it matters to come here,” she said. “That’s very important to me, to hear from our constituents.”
“And I would just like on the record that we have gotten some email commentary in favor of the millage and what we are trying to do with the budget. And I’ve gotten that from people in the schools that I’ve been talking to.”
The video below is of the tax hearing and the called meeting that followed.