BoE eyes $115M sales tax on Nov. ballot

Tue, 07/22/2008 - 4:40pm
By: Ben Nelms

A school SPLOST may be in your future.

The Fayette County Board of Education is searching for a way to offset the economic downturn, state austerity cuts and rising fuel prices while addressing needs in areas such as technology, debt service, facility upgrades and transportation. Their idea is a 1-percent local option sales tax.

If agreed to by the board and approved by voters in the November General Election, the ESPLOST (Educational Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax) is expected to generate $100-115 million over the five-year term allowed by law.

A final decision on the ESPLOST will have to be made by Aug. 4 to meet deadlines for getting the question on the November ballot.

The initiative comes less than one week after an election that returned three incumbents to the board and on the heels of the adoption of the $197.1 million 2008-2009 budget that, unless unforeseen factors emerge, will likely result in a millage rate increase to 19.35 mills from the current rate of 18.596.

Addressing the need for ESPLOST funds, Superintendent John DeCotis advocated for consideration of the 1-percent sales tax.

DeCotis said the school system has already cut close to 40 positions, adding that without a new source of revenue some services might face cuts next year.

Statewide, DeCotis said 153 of Georgia’s 159 counties currently have an ESPLOST.

DeCotis noted approximately $21 million in state austerity cuts over the past several years and the stagnant growth in local property taxes combined with large increases in fuel and energy costs as reasons to ask voters for approval of the ESPLOST.

“The economy is not good and it’s not a good time to ask for money,” he said. “But we can’t keep providing the things we do. With this (ESPLOST) approach you are going to have a property tax refund. It puts it in the hands of voters to see if we move forward. They will decide.”

The school board listed seven categories that would be funded if the measure is approved by voters in November. Only one of those categories, funding for a $10 million joint-venture aquatic facility, was viewed as something that might not survive for inclusion on the ballot.

The largest single use on the proposed ESPLOST would be $38 million to go toward debt service payments that would reduce the debt service millage rate.

Comptroller Laura Brock said the current debt service totals $175.3 million including interest. An ESPLOST would provide the means to reduce the debt service millage rate, currently at 3.55 mills, by as much as .833 mills in 2010, 1.595 mills in 2011, 1.326 mills in 2012, 1.321 mills in 2013 and 1.312 mills in 2014, based on collections of the maximum $115 million over the five-year period.

Brock said the savings from a reduction in the debt service millage would amount to approximately $100 on each mill on property tax bills for a home valued at $250,000.

Technology would get the next largest chunk of sales tax revenues, with $35 million earmarked for items such as computers, software, file servers and networking.

The school system’s computer needs includes approximately 5,700 computers that will need to be replaced in mid-2009, including 4,500 leased from Dell Computer Co., which must be returned to the company. Measures to reduce the number of computers might be accomplished by using web appliances costing $300 rather than bearing the approximate $1,000 replacement cost of acquiring a new PC.

The number of computers in use throughout the system still falls short of 21st Century Classroom expectations, where the goal is to have a 3:1 student to computer ratio in all elementary, middle and high schools, board members were told. Fayette elementary schools are at that ratio or better, though middle and high school average a 4.5-5:1 ratio.

Other technology needs include increased bandwidth, replacement of the Student Information service, Human Resources and Funds Accounting software that is eight years old.

The board also hopes to allocate $10 million for the purchase of school buses to maintain and modernize the fleet.

Another referendum item for consideration is a $10 million joint venture with city and/or county officials to construct new or improve existing pool facilities as a joint venture for an aquatic facility.

Chairman Terri Smith expressed concerns about having the aquatic facility on the referendum. While acknowledging that such a facility could benefit students, Smith said it could be a deal-breaker for voters.

“If we do this and put it on (the referendum), it might look like a wish list and we’d throw the baby out with the bath water,” she said.

DeCotis said the future of the Kedron swimming facility is uncertain, noting that home swim meets are held in Clayton County’s Jonesboro facility. The idea for a local aquatic facility would be for the school system to own the facility and have another entity operate, maintain it and assume liability for it. DeCotis said such a facility, if desired, could be placed on 12 acres of school system property across from Bennett’s Mill.

“If we keep using Jonesboro, the children would have to be transported there at 6 a.m. by parents and then picked up by the buses to be transported to school,” he said.

Smith requested more information on the aquatic center for the next meeting. Brock agreed, saying she would obtain that information, adding that the issue needed to be resolved quickly given the time constraints involved in having the referendum placed on the ballot.

Facilities improvements and renovations are also on the list, with $17 million targeted for those facilities listed on the five-year plan and for warehouse relocation.

Renovations and modification are targeted for schools approaching 20 years of use. Those include North Fayette Elementary, McIntosh High, Burch Elementary, Flat Rock Middle, Sandy Creek High, Braelinn Elementary and Whitewater Middle.

Renovation priorities include painting, replacing floor coverings, ceiling tile and existing lighting. Modification priorities include replacing existing roofs and HVAC units.

The warehouse relocation to the Kiwanis fairgrounds is also included in the facilities plan. Warehoused items are currently being stored in rental units and school system facilities that are not in good shape, DeCotis said.

Also on the proposed ESPLOST list are revenue funds for security and textbook adoption, both listed at $2.5 million. Security improvement would come in the form of cameras and monitoring technology while funds allocated for textbooks would supplement those monies generally made available through the General Fund for textbook purchases.

If put on the ballot and approved by voters in November, the ESPLOST must be approved by the board no later than Aug. 4. If it passes, the ESPLOST would be implemented April 1, 2009, with the first collections coming around June 20.

ESPLOST was last put before Fayette voters in September 1999. The measure failed 48 percent to 52 percent.

The school board will continue its discussion of the ESPLOST at the July 28 meeting. The discussion could run beyond that date to the Aug. 4 public hearings on the millage rate.

The board will conduct the public hearings at 8:30 a.m. and again at 6:45 p.m. with a final hearing on Aug. 11 at 8:30 a.m. to set the millage rate.

The current millage rate is 18.596 and will likely increase to 19.35. The $197.1 budget recently adopted was based on a millage rate of 19.35 mills. The system is nearing the state-mandated cap of 20 mills.

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Woody's picture
Submitted by Woody on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 7:24pm.

The BoE was given a bond issue by the taxpayers in lieu of a special purpose sales tax. It now is clear that they want both, and that's a break in faith with the citizens of the county. They can't be trusted to run our education system as good stewards. But, we deserve what we get when we re-elect the same culprits. This may be one year that I'll vote for for someone in another party than the incumbents, whom the Republicans re-nominated last week. No wonder the BoE has a public relations representative. It's easier to let her spin the stories rather than to run the Board responsibly. I say "NO" to the sales tax.

Submitted by heatjam on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 8:04pm.

I don't believe that there are any Democrats running for School Board, so the Primary was it.

Main Stream's picture
Submitted by Main Stream on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 10:29pm.

"I don't believe that there are any Democrats running for School Board..."

Maybe this is indicative of small town politics or something, but why would this even make a difference whether a school board member is a Dem or Repub? Don't we have bigger issues to vote on regarding our schools rather than who is a Dem or Repub?

Woody's picture
Submitted by Woody on Sat, 07/26/2008 - 1:12pm.

The question about the political parties wasn't to say that one was better than the other, but that by having candidates from both parties running in the fall, we could have other choices and make those currently in office more accountable than they appear to be at this point.

Submitted by patches on Thu, 07/24/2008 - 12:34pm.

Wow, I agree with you about the schools. I just want the best person that has the kids best interest in mind. BTW I like your avatar. Very cute.Smiling

Submitted by susieq on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 10:55pm.

Another elected office that should be nonpartisan.
I believe the state makes that decision.

Woody's picture
Submitted by Woody on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 10:05pm.

Dadgum it. The Republicans in our couny's BoE are acting just like the national Republicans when it comes to spending. Why don't they move to Clayton County and mess up their system instead? Oh, nevermind about that. Is it too late for independents to get on the ballot?

ImJustSaying's picture
Submitted by ImJustSaying on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 5:46pm.

Ten million for a new swimming pool? might be a deal breaker. Stagnant property tax increases? Mine goes up every year. I'm pretty sure my north Fayette property is not worth (would not sell for) it's appraised value. Sweet!! How much does it cost to educate an out of county, law breaking, revenue stealing, tax evading, computer using student? CUT EXPENSES FIRST, then we can talk.

Submitted by head_ragg on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 8:09pm.

Ten million dollar pool does sound a bit much. I want the kids to have something nice like any other parent, but some on the BOE have shown themselves not be good stewards of our money. Yet, people didn't vote them out. It makes me sick.

If Houston and someone else was there instead of Smith and Smola, I might bite, but given the same 2 in office that wanted to go into the develoepr/land speculation, I couldn't vote for it.

Submitted by Okie on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 8:39am.

Do any of the Fayette County Schools have a pool? How can you have a swim team without a pool? The school I went to in Oklahoma got their indoor pool right after I graduated....around 1980 or '81. When my sister went there, swimming was part of PE Class.

Submitted by citizenal on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 7:46am.

Why does the BoE, locally and nationally, never take responsibility for their poor business planning and stewardship. Their answer to every problem is more money - that means more taxes for each of us. I love my children as much as anybody but enough is enough. They need to be held accountable to do an excellent job with the funds they have. Because the funds are sufficient. The leadership is not!

sniffles5's picture
Submitted by sniffles5 on Wed, 07/23/2008 - 7:50am.

I agree with you 100%. "Lack of accountability" is this school board's motto.

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