City government leaders appear to be bracing for the first property tax rate increase in 12 years for the municipality’s residents.
At Monday night’s regular meeting of the Johnson City Board of Education, members addressed a letter to Chair Kathy Hall from city Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin urging support for a tax hike.
“I respectfully request that the Board of Education publicly discuss the need for recurring revenue at its meeting on June 2 and that it vote its support of an increase in the property tax rate, should it be the decision of the Commission that said increase is necessary to meet the funding needs of the Johnson City School System,” the mayor’s letter read.
After several years of dipping into the district’s reserves to cover budget deficits, board members said the practice is no longer workable to cover the $3.4 million hole this year, and said the city may need to up the tax rate to keep the quality of education level.
“Over the past few years, we have used our fund balance as directed,” city schools Superintendent Richard Bales said during the meeting. “We no longer have that amount we can dedicate to spending. If we don’t get additional revenues, my direction to you all will be that we have to make cuts, because we have to make payroll. We can’t be in a situation where we can’t pay our employees.”
At times during the past school year, the district relied on advances of the regular funding installments allocated by the city to pay employees, while waiting for state or federal funding to be transferred.
Board member Richard Manahan said that practice, and continuing to deplete the system’s reserve fund, are unthinkable, and supported a resolution backing the City Commission should its members decide to raise taxes to pay for education.
“The mayor specifically states that if our needs are to be met, we would have to use our fund balance, which I have a problem with, or through an increase in property tax paid for by the citizens of Johnson City, or a combination of both,” Manahan said. “I hope it’s very clear that if we’re supporting a tax increase, we’re asking for that $3.4 million for education, that’s our primary purpose.”
According to Pam Cox, the district’s finance director, covering the schools’ budget deficit alone would require a 20-cent increase in the city’s current tax rate of $1.58 per $100 of assessed value.
Member John Hunter, who, along with Tim Belisle, voted in the minority against the resolution of support, urged that more options for savings should be explored before committing to a tax increase.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to a tax increase, but I think there are more than two options,” Hunter said. “I’d like to see if we can hold some mini-workshops where we’re not looking at the educational side, but where we might be able to bid some things out and get some better prices.”
In reading news coverage of the budget process this year, Hunter said it seemed to him that city leaders were focusing on employees and services meant to evoke an emotional response to make the case for a tax increase, rather than searching for a smattering of smaller, less intrusive cuts.
But Manahan, a veteran on the board, said the school system’s budget has already been shaved to the bone in past years, and said the quality of education would likely suffer if additional funds were removed.
The City Commission continues its budget process after conducting rounds of workshops with department heads over the month of May.
The municipality’s new fiscal year begins July 1, when the budget should be in place.
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