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BOE eyes millage increase

By Sherri Ellington The Lamar County board of education will advertise a $20,054,241 budget for the 2014-15 school year supported by a 16.736 rollback millage rate. While this rate actually brings in slightly less tax revenue than last year’s 16.632 mills, due to drops in property values and the new senior citizen homestead exemption, taxes are still going to go up. A drop in Education Special Purpose Sales Tax revenue ‘“ known as ESPLOST ‘“ leaves the board facing a decision to add on a separate one to two mills in property taxes aimed at paying off bonded indebtedness. That decision must be made by the end of August. ’The problem is (ESPLOST) isn’t making enough money to pay for itself,’ said financial director Kristen Albritton. The current sales tax, approved by voters in 2011 for a 2012 collection start date, pays for bonded indebtedness that paid for the Fine Arts Center, Stadium, College Career Academy, board offices and various improvements to school buildings and technology. At that time it was bringing in $150,000 a month. When an ESPLOST was approved in 2007 sales tax was bringing in $190,000 a month. Due to the economic crash it is now bringing in, during a good month, $125,000 to $130,000. ’As it stands now the general fund fronted the ESPLOST fund $750,000 to make the April bond payment,’ said Albritton. ‘The SPLOST paid it back. In April 2015 we have to make a $1 million payment on the principal and interest on the bonds. Next year you won’t catch up until December. It doesn’t mean the sky is falling if you don’t increase the millage this year but you’ll need to do something next year if SPLOST continues as it is.’ There are also two Quality Zone Academy Bonds, which also went toward capital improvements, that will come due in April 2018 ‘“ making a total of $4 million due that year ‘“ and the second in 2023. The 2008 bond issue will be paid off in 2018. ’There are no current plans to cover that QZAB,’ said superintendent Dr. Jute Wilson. ‘There won’t be $2 million anywhere. For us to break even we’d have to collect $185,000 a month.’ A bond millage would be earmarked only to pay these debts and could not be used for maintenance and operations. It would be a separate line item on homeowners’ tax bills. If it is approved, it will not require any public hearings. The switch from sales tax to property tax to pay off the bonded indebtedness was included in the ESPLOST referendum. The tax can be renewed each year until bond debt is paid. ’It’s very common right now throughout the state,’ said Dr. Wilson. ‘If we wait we’re going to end up imposing a large increase.’ He added that the millage levels in 2012 and 2013 ‘“ both set at the rollback rate ‘“ did not cover losses in property values. Chairman Susan Byars noted the values are at historic lows not counting the new senior exemptions. ’We need to fix it before it gets out of hand,’ said board member Sue O’Neal. Should a bond millage be instituted, a 1% increase would bring in $150,000, bringing in a little under $2 million over the next two years. This is half of what is needed to pay off the 2005 bonds due in 2016. Over four years it would bring in $4 million, covering bond payments through 2018. On a $200,000 house with a homestead exemption, a mill increase would cost the homeowner $148. For a $100,000 house, that would be $72 a year, said Albritton. ‘This is based on (what we need with) the ESPLOST running as it is now.’ The budget tentatively approved for this school year includes three furlough days for employees. Students will attend school for 177 of the 180 days that make up a regular school year. It also shows a $1 million deficit ‘“ the cost of the bond payment ‘“ by the end of the year.

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