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School board ponders half-cent sales tax
This article has been updated to clarify the difference between the existing half-mill property tax levy and the possible half-cent sales tax being discussed.
The Franklin County school board had plenty of questions last week for the attorney brought in to provide guidance on putting a half-cent sales tax on the November ballot.
At a Feb. 15 workshop, attorney Jason Breth, with the law firm of Bryant Miller Olive, addressed each of them, and after he concluded, the response was cautious.
“I have some hesitancy about this,” said Chairman Stacy Kirvin. “I’m not saying I’m against it, I’m saying I want to see the numbers. I’m not totally against it.”
He said the revenue from the tax would be considerable but could pose a problem.
“$1.6 million coming in is a lot of money,” he said. “We could be sitting here with a flush pocketful of capital outlay and not enough operational money.”
Kirvin said his hesitancy is that if the half-cent sales tax is put before voters in 2022, this would be two years before renewal of the existing half-mill property tax levy is before them in 2024.
First approved in 2008, and renewed three times since then in a countywide vote, the half-mill property tax raises funds for operations, initially for salary and benefits. The school district has stressed the property tax levy represents a shift, not an increase, in ad valorem taxation, with capital outlay millage lowered by an equivalent amount as the operations millage is raised.
“We have to put this on the ballot every four years, and this (sales tax) could hurt our ability to pass that,” Kirvin said. “I am concerned how that tax will be perceived and what effect it will have on our ability to pass the (property tax millage) levy. That’s where I have trepidations.”
Board Member Jared Mock stopped short of voicing any opposition, but shared Kirvin’s viewpoint.
“It concerns me, I won’t lie,” he said. “I see it from both perspectives; I want as much money as possible to make the school better.
“But we have to look at shifting that half-mill (property tax millage). That’s concerning for me. We have to be very transparent in the process and everything’s out there,” he said. “They need to know that.”
In his presentation, Breth said he has been handling school matters for 15 years, with a large part of that as school bond and disclosure council. He said he advises districts on the proper wording of school ballot referendums, and helps them secure passage by voters.
“It’s always good when we’re involved early on in that process,” he said.
He said monies raised by the half-cent sales tax, if placed on the November ballot and approved by voters, could be spent on fixed capital expenditures, such as construction for improvement of facilities with a life efficacy of at least five years.
Nothing operational, such as salaries and benefits, would be permitted, with bulk hardware and software allowed, as well as debt service.
“You would list the type of projects you plan, and would say what it was, you definitely want to include that,” Breth said.
The length of time for how long the half-cent would be approved for is not set in statute, he said.
“You would have to decide the type and length and amount (of the tax), and you have to share a portion with the charter school based on a proportional share of total school enrollment,” Breth said.
Because there is a new requirement that the proposed measure receive an audit from the state’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability.
“It would have to be ready to be sent to OPPAGA by early May,” he said. “The county technically has to approve a resolution to put it on the ballot, but that’s usually an administrative task. Right about now is the bare minimum we can go with, especially with the OPPAGA requirements.”
Board Member Pam Marshall asked whether the monies could go for a new bus barn (they can), and Kirvin asked whether money could be used to pay people on staff on a project being done.
“That’s probably more of an accounting issue than a legal one,” said Breth. “The issue comes up a lot when we issue debt. You must be clear in accounting and what that employee is doing, and as far as a particular project in mind, it varies from district to district.”
Superintendent Steve Lanier has pushed for putting the measure before voters in the November general election.
“It’s my responsibility as superintendent to think of the future,” he said. “It’s up to the voters to decide; all we can do is put it out there.”
Lanier has suggested that a list of proposed projects include putting an administrative building on the man campus, replacing the bus barn in Carrabelle now housed in the aging gym, classroom enhancements, parking improvements, heating and air conditioning, and camera and video surveillance enhancements,
“Those are things we’re looking at, for the future of students in Franklin County,” Lanier said.