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Few attend first tax hike public hearings

The third and final public hearing to talk about the proposed Screven County Board of Education increase of the property taxes is scheduled for today, Aug. 13, at 4 p.m.
Since the 2008-2009 school year, the Screven County School System has endured cuts to programs and personnel because of reductions in state funding, while absorbing unfunded mandates through local dollars.
Following the laws on when to hold public hearings for a potential tax hike, the BOE held two hearings in the Board Room of the Screven County School System at 382 Halcyondale Road in Sylvania, at noon and 6 p.m. on Aug. 6. Today’s hearing – seven days after the first two by law -- also will be at the BOE. It will be followed at 5 p.m. today with a called board meeting in which school board members are expected to vote on the measure that would increase the millage by 1.846 mills to 15.50 mills.
The Screven County Commissioners voted Tuesday morning at the board’s monthly meeting to schedule a 9 a.m. Aug. 18 meeting in the courthouse board room to vote on the approval of the county’s tax levy.
The combined total to attend the first two BOE public hearings – minus the staff affiliated with the school system – was 20.
A dozen of the ones who attended were from Screven County High School teacher Burton Kemp Jr.’s AP government and AP U.S. history as those students earned extra credit for their attendance. Some of the students’ parents also were among the 20 count.
In comparison in 2008 when the BOE approved a millage increase from 10.32 to 13 mills, the public hearings drew standing-room only attendance in the board room.
William Edwards, who was the lone non-school staff member to attend the Aug. 6 noon hearing and then returned for the 6 p.m., said he did not attend to dispute the need for a good education, but rather how the additional funds would be collected. Edwards said he would rather have a sales tax, not a property tax.
“The schools need to be funded and the roads need to be fixed, but there has to be another answer. We need some industry,” said Edwards, noting that renters do not pay property taxes.
Board member Julie Cannon, a landlord to rental properties, said the property tax is paid by the rentals’ landlord and typically the renters’ monthly payments include funds that go toward the taxes.
The proposed tax increase for a residence with a fair market value of $100,000 is approximately $70.15 and the proposed tax increase for non-homestead property with a fair market value of $100,000 is approximately $73.84.
Property taxes are the primary source of local revenue for local school systems as these funds are used for the operating budget. All property is taxed, even rental properties. The property taxes collected are based on the county millage rate adopted by the Board of Education annually.
By state law, millage rates are capped at 20 mills, except in a few rare circumstances.
Public school systems in Georgia receive funding from the state based on the number of students at various grade levels through Quality Basic Education. However, when the state was not able to allot enough funds to provide those totals for the school systems the state made austerity cuts to each school system.
Since 2003, a total of $13,831,331 in state funding has been withheld from Screven County and since 2008 the total has been $10,755,413 withheld from the county.
Additionally, an increase in health insurance costs has put more of a squeeze on the school system.
Non-certified employees’ health insurance increased $1,500 just this year. That increase is more than some non-certified employees make in yearly pay.
The school system has approximately 100 non-certified employees for a potential additional cost to Screven County for FY2016 of $150,000.
To continue to provide programs for student, the BOE had to use local funds and eliminate budgetary items.
The school system eliminated field trips; cut bus transportation routes from 44 down to 37; had reduction in force as personnel -- teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, and bus drivers -- was decreased since 2009 by 53 positions or 13 percent.
As other cost-cutting measures, some county office staff retired, but continued to work at 49 percent pay; transferred cost of books/technology/other to SPLOST when possible; and maintenance and operations budget only required operations so no preventative or routine repairs like paint, carpet, furniture; custodial services were rebid from five days down to a four-day cleaning; and stringent energy management has saved hundreds of thousands.
All the system staff has been furloughed since FY2010 for a total of 36 days. In FY2011, teachers were furloughed 10 days, while all the others were furloughed 20 days.
Next year teachers would still be furloughed two days, while the others would be 10 days.
Superintendent William Bland said that without a millage increase multiple programs would have to be cut. Increased accountability and class sizes means the school system can no longer continue to make major cuts and sustain a system that meets the needs of our students and community, he said.