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School tax hearing is tonight

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By Nick Schrager

Operating a school system is expensive business, and in a tough economy for everyone involved, it unfortunately costs more each year.

The Washington County School Board will meet tonight to discuss with citizens the cost of operating the school system and how best to do that at a public hearing set for 6:30 p.m. at Central Office. The meeting is open to the public.

Last year, the board had the option to accept the compensating rate, or to take a 4 percent increase. In the end, they kept the rate at 50.8 cents per $100 assessment, which was the same as the 2007-08 school year, and somewhere in the middle of the compensating rate and the 4-percent increase rate.

The compensating rate means the county’s property taxes would generate exactly the same amount of money for the school system as in the previous year. The 4-percent increase is used because that is the greatest increase allowed by the Kentucky Department of Education without the issue being put on a ballot for public vote.

The board decided to go with the 50.8 cents per $100 assessment and not increase the rate for the 2008-09 school year.

Now, it’s time for the board to make that decision again.

At Wednesday night’s meeting, the board will have the option to either accept the compensating rate, or take that 4 percent increase. Even if the compensating rate is selected, the rate will go from 50.8 cents to 50.9 cents per $100 of assessed property value. That slight increase is what is required to generate the same revenue as the previous year, according to Ronald “Sonny” Fentress, interim superintendent of Washington County Schools.

“The (4-percent) increase would make the rate 52.9 cents per $100 of assessed value, and that would make your taxes $529 on a $100,000 home. That’s a difference of $21 a year. If you divide 52 weeks into $21, it costs you 40 cents a week,” Fentress said. “The reason I like to break it down that way is for when somebody says ‘I have to sell my house, I can’t afford to live here,’ and I think that statement was made last year in this meeting. It’s not that kind of tax. It’s an increase, and I understand no one likes increases, but if you show people that you can’t get a cup of coffee at McDonald’s for that, it’s not going to affect the way people live. And that’s on a $100,000 home. Most people in Washington County don’t have a $100,000 home.”

According to Fran Carrico, Washington County’s property valuation administrator, there are 3,695 residential properties in the county, which includes mobile homes and vacant lots. That number does not include farms or commercial properties. The total assessed value of those residential properties is $257,674,199, which comes to $69,735.91 on average for each residential property. By that number, the average residential property owner would pay  $369 in property taxes per year, and their increase would be about $12 per year based on the proposed new school tax rate.

“I get the question, ‘I don’t have any kids in the school system, so why do I have to pay school taxes?’ Well, part of your state taxes go to pay for things at the University of Kentucky, whether you have kids there or not,” Fentress said. “It’s good that the university is there. Thomas Jefferson said a long time ago that democracy depends on people being educated and being able to reason and make good decisions. We need to have education. Most people, if they don’t have children of their own in school, have grandchildren or neighbor children. The children need adults to make good decisions for them. We have 1,655 kids enrolled in this school system, and they don’t have a union protecting them and they don’t have a lawyer on retainer, and somebody’s got to watch out for the kids. It’s often said our children are our future, but I heard a guy say one time that we really are our children’s future. If we don’t provide a future for them, they won’t have one.”

“And that’s what our job is,” added Robin Cochran, newly hired superintendent of Washington County Schools.

In not taking the tax increase last year, the school system missed out on $51,500 in revenue based on the rate of 50.8 cents per $100, according to Ruth Ann Cocanougher, financial officer for the school system. She pointed out that in addition to this money, the system will forever miss out on the ability to earn interest from that money, and will never be able to recover it.

“It also compounds year after year, and you never get that back. This year’s 4-percent increase would have been on top of that $51,500, so you lose it over and over every year,” Cocanougher said.

The county’s total property assessment for 2008, as reported in January 2009, was $519,880,045, according to Cocanougher.

Money collected by the school system from property taxes goes to the school system’s general fund, but Cocanougher said traditionally about $300,000 is moved from the general fund to the building fund in preparation for projects needed by the school system. However, she said no money was moved to the building fund last year due to the tight budget under which the system operated.

“Money can be put into the building fund from the general fund, but it can’t be moved out of the building fund for anything else,” Fentress pointed out.

Currently, the school system is bonded for a value of $15,003,610. That money is being earmarked for the first phase of a project to provide many new, as well as upgraded facilities on the campus of Washington County high, middle and elementary schools.

Ross-Tarrant, a Lexington-based architectural firm that specializes in educational design, has been hired by the school system to oversee the upgrades. Among the Phase 1 work are plans for upgrading or possibly building a new library at the high school, relocating office space at the high school and middle school, restructuring the parking lot area of the three schools, and also adding athletic facilities on 16 acres of land recently purchased by the school system.

“Nothing is in concrete because it’s like everything else, it’s driven by money. How many of these things we can do depends on what the bid price is and how we deal with that,” Fentress said.