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Commission boosts school funds, but tax increase fails again

June 28th, 2014 12:35 am by Gary B. Gray

Commission boosts school funds, but tax increase fails again

Vice Mayor Clayton Stout asks a question to members of the Johnson City Schools system while Commissioner Jenny Brock looks on. (Photos by Max Hrenda/Johnson City Press)

Three hours of amending amendments, a 25-minute, five-minute break, statements and restatements, pleas, rebuttals, whispers, applause, gasps, explanations, more amendments, a few red faces, and finally — a budget!
Johnson City commissioners on Friday finally put the city’s nearly $205 million 2015 financial plan in place — a plan that gives Johnson City Schools $600,000 in one-time funding and another $600,000 to use as a “backstop” in case anticipated state funding for employees does not meet expected revenues in 2015. This money is in addition to the $500,000 the city has agreed to pull from its fund balance to help support schools.
The balanced budget does not include a property tax increase, though it was championed on several occasions by Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock. The rate remains $1.58 per $100 assessed value.
The Johnson City Board of Education began the budget process $3.4 million in the hole. The board voted Tuesday to make nearly $1.7 million in cuts, including $30,000 in athletics. Not specifically for any grade or sport. That will be left to the athletic department.
But heading into Friday’s City Commission meeting, the school system still faced a $1.1 million shortfall, and that’s why most of the 150 people crammed into the commission’s chambers. Commissioners tried to work it out. Each commissioner gave it his or her best shot. None wanted to leave the school system hurting.
Two property tax hike proposals failed. First a 12-cent raise by Commissioner Jenny Brock, then a 21-cent proposal by Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin.
But the mood lightened when Commissioner David Tomita — who had scribbled some numbers down on something akin to a napkin — introduced a plan that with a few fixes, won the day.
“We filled most of needs without a tax increase, and now we’ll get to work and figure out how we’re going to fund recurring needs,” Tomita said after the three-hour meeting.
The $600,000 in one-time money will go to the school system and be spent at its discretion, most likely for athletics, computers and other needs. The money will come from the city’s $1.3 million resurfacing fund, but a capital outlay note will be issued to rejuvenate that fund.
Tomita, Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner Jeff Banyas voted for the measure. Van Brocklin and Commissioner Jenny Brock voted against.
On June 19, Van Brocklin and Brock — both former school board members — voted for the mayor’s proposed 22-cent property tax increase on first reading. Banyas, Stout and Tomita held sway by voting down the increase.
The next day, commissioners voted 3-2 on second reading to amend the proposed budget and employ a plan by Banyas to use various revenues to pay for expenses added back into the city’s financial plan. The commissioner first proposed the method after hours of deliberation and a separate vote that likely snuffed out any realistic hope a property tax increase would fund millions of dollars of unfunded needs.
Banyas, Stout and Tomita voted for the amended version. Van Brocklin and Brock voted against the plan.
The property tax increase would by no means have funded all city and school needs for the coming year. Instead, the additional revenue would have been used to partially fund both entities at a “maintenance level,” or about the same as the current fiscal year.
“In the past the city has offered to consolidate maintenance to save money — you didn’t want to do that,” Banyas told school officials near the end of the meeting, while rubbing his eyes and leaning ever closer to the microphone. “You have nearly $5 million in your fund balance. It was very unnecessary to drag any children into this.
“Nobody wants to stand up and say, ‘you have to live within your means.’ The city is not the primary funding source for schools. We asked the schools to go to the Washington County Commission and present your needs to them. You’ve not done that.”
Banyas, Vice Mayor Clayton Stout and Commissioner David Tomita voted for the plan. Van Brocklin and Brock rejected the plan.
Tomita’s plan also will cover 265,000 for a 1 percent raise for city employees and $271,000 in undesignated funds.
The commission agreed to appropriate about $11 million to the roughly $66 million general purpose school fund, including the additional $500,000 approved June 20. 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, revenue in the capital equipment and facilities funds.
In the past four years, the city’s appropriation to the schools has increased three times: fiscal 2011; $400,000 (5.1 percent), fiscal 2013; $350,000 (4.3 percent), and fiscal 2014; $375,000 (4.4 percent), according to a budget overview provided to commissioners.
The general fund is proposed in total at $75,735,580, a decrease of $2,551,653 (3 percent) over fiscal 2014.
Property taxes, which account for 39 percent of general fund revenue, were last raised by the commission 12 years ago. But property taxes for Johnson City residents actually have been raised three times during that period, each being imposed by Washington County.
A large chunk of the revenues from these increases has gone toward paying off the county’s bond fund proceeds, which helped pay for about $30 million in new construction and renovations on the Science Hill High School campus and the new Fairmont Elementary School.
Local option sales tax, the second largest general fund source at 25 percent, is anticipated to decrease by $232,000 (1.2 percent). Collections for the current year are projected at about $18.6 million, which is $417,000 less than budget and $50,000 less than actual collections from the prior year.

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