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Budget Battle: Tomita, Stout defend votes against Johnson City tax increase

June 27th, 2014 9:01 am by Gary B. Gray

Budget Battle: Tomita, Stout defend votes against Johnson City tax increase

Commissioners David Tomita, Clayton Stout and Jeff Banyas.

Three Johnson City commissioners have taken a lot of heat for what some Board of Education members have described as nothing less than a betrayal of its school system.

The angst has been palpable; the media coverage ubiquitous. But the annual scrum for dollars, stretching of heartstrings and pointing of fingers will come to a head tonight when the City Commission puts its final stamp on the fiscal 2015 budget.

“Our budget shortfall was not a surprise to anyone,” BOE Chairwoman Kathy Hall told commissioners June 19 before a vote on a second reading of the $204 million budget.

Maybe not. But board members wasted no time in laying the wood to Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioners Jeff Banyas and David Tomita, who voted against a proposed 22-cent property tax increase on first reading — an increase that would have temporarily propped up not just the schools’ bottom line, but the city’s as well.

“They’re trying to evoke emotion,” Commissioner David Tomita said Thursday. “There’s a difference in being an advocate and a manager. They’re being advocates, and they are entitled to their opinions. But they’re trying to evoke emotion. They have to understand that we are managing the entire city, and to say that a property tax increase is the only way to go is absolutely wrong. The misconception is that the world ends on July 1.”

Stout, Banyas and Tomita also voted on second reading to support a plan introduced by Banyas that cuts more than $1 million in revenues generated by the city and directs an additional $500,000 to schools and other needs. The city already has cut $2.5 million from this year’s anticipated expenditures.

Board member Tom Hager specifically blamed the three commissioners for putting the school system “in this predicament.” Hager also stated, “I’m beyond words when it comes to those three people.”

Board member Richard Manahan said flatly that any cut made was directly attributable to the three commissioners who voted against the tax increase. Manahan said commissioners were “playing nickel and dime so people can move ahead in their political gains, whatever that is.”

Tomita said he’s just doing the job he was elected to do.

“Again, the majority of comments are emotional responses,” he said. “Well, don’t let the lights get turned off when you’ve got close to $5 million in the bank. The school system is not required by law to keep a certain amount in its fund balance. That’s what they say every year, but only the city and county have that requirement.”

Not everyone will be pleased with how things turn out, and that applies to members of the city’s police and fire departments, its public works department and so on and so on. Each was asked to do some whittling this year. As was Johnson City Schools, which this week shaved about $1.7 million from its proposed $66 million budget.

“I do believe they’ve played on peoples’ emotions, and it doesn’t surprise me,” Stout said. “Mr. Hager’s comment was irresponsible, and we did not put them in a predicament. That’s not being truthful to the taxpayers of Johnson City. The facts tell the story. When you take students’ parents aside and explain how the city is funded — how it really works — they’re very understanding.

“For Mr. Manahan to say that I made my decision based on my political future is ridiculous,” Stout added. “I can’t continue to look another police officer, firefighter or public works employee in the face and tell them we can’t fund them because we have to send it to the schools.”

Banyas was not available for comment Thursday.

The school system began this process by asking for $3.4 million in addition to the more than $11 million coming partially from city property tax revenue as well as a portion of local option sales tax revenue. Federal and state education funds are the single largest revenue provider for the school system at nearly $26.8 million, followed by county taxes/licenses at about $23 million.

This does not include revenues from food services, federal money obtained for projects and revenue in the capital equipment and facilities funds.

School administrators have asked the City Commission for a 4.2 percent average annual increase from 2001 through the current fiscal year, or a 59 percent increase over a 13-year span, according to Tomita.

Follow Gary B. Gray on Twitter @ggrayjcpress. Like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/garybgrayjcp.

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