After keeping its millage rate constant at 15.333 for the past three years, the Effingham County Board of Education gave preliminary approval Thursday to raising the rate to 16.895 for the coming fiscal year.
However, a decrease in the county’s property tax digest means the millage hike will not generate any additional revenue for the school system.
Effingham County’s tax digest decreased by 9 percent, or $138 million, from last year. While timber and motor vehicle values increased, real and personal property values in the county fell by 13 percent overall.
"It’s very important that we look at the big picture," Superintendent Randy Shearouse said. "Some (people’s taxes) may go up, some may go down, but overall we’re projecting to bring in the same amount of local property taxes that we brought in the previous year."
For example, Shearouse said, the decline in the tax digest, combined with the increase in the millage rate, would result in a $62.48 school tax increase on a $100,000 property that maintained its same value from last year. Conversely, a $200,000 property that fell in value to $170,000 would see a $77.78 decrease in school taxes even with the higher millage rate.
School officials expect the 16.895 millage rate to generate $25,785,378 in school tax revenue, which will still be $268,397 less than what was collected with the 15.333 rate this past year.
"I have agonized over this," said school board member Mose Mock. "I want to make sure that people understand that in no way did we think there would possibly not be a tax increase for somebody."
Board member Eddie Tomberlin also voiced concern that the public would not understand the reasoning behind the millage rate hike and that it means no overall tax increase for county residents.
"The only thing you’re going to hear, what people perceive, is there’s a tax increase," Tomberlin said. "To me, (paying) a couple hundred dollars a year, I’m going to do that anyway because I want to make sure our children are educated."
The school board voted 5-0 to give tentative approval of the fiscal year 2013 budget. The board plans to approve it formally at its June 21 meeting.
At a budget workshop last month, school officials projected a $2.6 million budget shortfall fornext year. Now that the school district has received the county tax digest and the state allotment figures, the expected deficit is $1.6 million.
Along with the decline in local school tax revenue, the state has cut millions of dollars in funding —totaling more than $42 million since 2003. Those revenue reductions, coupled with rising expenses like higher prices on diesel fuel for school buses and escalating insurance premiums for non-certified employees such as custodians and bus drivers, put the school district in a deficit despite expenses being trimmed by $2 million from last year.
The school district is reducing its payroll by $2.2 million in salary and benefits. Shearouse said the district has made a "huge decrease in our number of employees" – from 1,740 in 2009 to 1,568 for next year — with much of that stemming from positions not being filled after teachers retired or moved to other school systems.
"We’re leaner, if that’s the word," Mock said.
"We truly have done everything we can (to cut costs), but it’s getting to the point that we’re going to have to cut programs," said Becky Long, director of human resources for Effingham County Schools.
Effingham County will be able to offset the $1.6 million shortfall with funds remaining from the current Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for Education (E-SPLOST), which expires June 30. State law allows that as long as a school district has completed the projects in its E-SPLOST plan and does not have any outstanding debt on a building or bond.
"A lot of folks will tell you, (E-SPLOST) wasn’t just passed to build schools, it was passed to help keep taxes down," Mock said. "Therefore, here comes a time it is going to help us with that, and thank God for it."
The school board opened the floor to public comment on the proposed budget, but no one from the community was in attendance to speak.
"I think it shows that the general public feels like we do what’s right with the money we have," said school board chairman Lamar Allen.
Vice chairman Troy Alford added, "At the end of the day, we as board members need to do what’s right for who? The children of Effingham County."