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The Franklin News-Post
P. O. Box 250
310 Main Street, SW
Rocky Mount, Virginia 24151
540-483-5113
Fax: 540-483-8013

Supervisors propose 2-cent tax hike
Schools make plea for community support
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Dr. Mark Church

Friday, March 29, 2013

By CHARLES BOOTHE - Staff Writer

Residents of Franklin County will get a chance to provide input on a proposed 2-cent increase in the real estate tax for fiscal year 2013-14.

Supervisors voted 4-3 Tuesday night to advertise the tax hike after hearing from school officials and school board members.

The dissenting votes were cast by Rocky Mount District Supervisor Charles Wagner, Boone District Supervisor Ronnie Thompson and Snow Creek District Supervisor Leland Mitchell.

The recommended county budget for next year initially included no tax hike, but that was before the joint meeting of the two boards Tuesday. During that meeting, supervisors heard that the school system is asking for more financial resources to remain a top division.

Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Church said he is "perplexed" about what to do when the school system has cut its budget as much as it can without losing programs and positions, yet the system is facing a $1.5 million hole for fiscal year 2013-14.

"In trying to make up $1.5 million, we are going to have to go after large programs, major dollars," he said. "But we can take care of it with a little more resources from the community."

Church, along with school board member Bill Brush, suggested that the board advertise a "modest" increase in the real estate tax. A 2-cent increase would bring in almost $1.3 million in revenue a year.

"I am begging you. We have got to advertise that revenue to help fund our budget," Church said. "I respectfully request that we let our citizens tell us that they will support our schools, or that they won't."

"What we do in education is so critical," he added. "We have whittled this thing (budget) down."

Church said the extra revenue is needed "just to keep us whole."

"It (the budget) is at its bare bones," school board member Crystal Naff agreed. "We are down to cutting employees. This is not just a board issue, it's a community issue."

Brush said he has studied the budget in detail and "we are being responsible in how we spend it (taxpayer money)."

"The school system is at the point that we need to look at a way to get more resources," he said.

Brush said he would urge the board to consider a tax increase.

"If you decide (on no tax hike) before (a public hearing on the budget), you don't give the public a chance to provide input," Brush added.

A tax rate must be set when the proposed budget is advertised. After the public hearing on the budget, supervisors can adjust the tax rate down, but not up.

The real estate tax is currently 54 cents on each $100 of assessed value. On a house assessed at $200,000, a 2-cent rate hike would increase the tax from $1,080 a year to $1,120, a $40 difference.

The school board has requested a total budget of $82.9 million, with $33 million of that coming from the county.

In the county's recommended budget, which does not include a tax hike, schools would get $31.5 million in local funding, which includes a $1 million increase over the current year's county contribution. That would leave the schools with a $1.5 million shortfall, most of which would be made up with the 2-cent tax hike if all the money was earmarked for schools.

The extra revenue would be used for the 1-percent Virginia Retirement System phase-in ($149,289), required additional staffing ($157,902), group health insurance premium increase ($262,500), replacing one-time carryover funding used this year to retain positions ($858,504) and $1.2 million for employee raises (along with $444,000 in state funding).

During the meeting Tuesday, several supervisors expressed concern over the method the school system is proposing for pay raises.

Under that proposal, employees who have been with the system for 10 years or less would receive a 2.5-percent pay raise. But employees on step 11 to step 16 (reflecting longevity) would receive a pay raise of up to almost 8 percent.

For example, a third-year teacher would receive an increase of less than $900 a year at 2.5 percent, while a teacher who has been with the school system for 11 years would see an annual salary increase of more than $3,000 at 7.7 percent.

"It (the disproportionate pay raise percentage) is going to be a pretty tough sale," Gills Creek Supervisor Bob Camicia said.

Blue Ridge Supervisor Bobby Thompson questioned the reasoning behind the difference in percentages, saying that, historically, the starting salary has been an issue because it's been lower than most school divisions in the region.

Church explained that Franklin County hires teachers with a commitment to provide higher increases in salary with longevity. Teachers in the system for the first 10 years receive relatively small step increases each year, although no step increase has been given to any school employee during the past four years. After 10 years, those step increases rise dramatically.

Giving those larger pay raises now basically fulfills a commitment, Church said, adding that the higher salary scale that comes with longevity is a good recruiting tool and a way to keep experienced teachers in the classroom.

"When we lose experienced teachers, we can't replace them," said Brush.

School Board Chairman Ed Jamison said that historically the county has had lower starting salaries but higher salaries on the other end, compared to other school divisions in the region.

Brush said teachers have been hired with those higher salaries after years of service as an incentive.

"They were promised that," he said.

Another issue discussed at the Tuesday meeting was the county school system's services in comparison to state standards.

"Are we going beyond state mandates?" Camicia asked.

Brush said the division is "about average" in how much it spends related to state mandates, which generally are low.

"The state saves money by lowering standards," said Lee Cheatham, the school system's financial director, and that ends up costing localities more.

"We are taking on a lot of responsibilities that used to be primarily the family's job," Church said, and that support adds to the cost of taking care of students.

"We build wrap-around services for our children, and that (extra support) is why we have high test scores," said Sue Rogers, assistant superintendent of schools.

"So many children need help," Naff said. "That's growing every day ... It's not just about education."

Brush said that's why a good alternative education program is needed, which actually saves money in the long run because it helps students who may end up having to be sent off at the county's expense.

Rocky Mount school board member Sarah Alexander said she would like to see supervisors not only support the programs but "embrace them as being important to the schools and the county."

Thompson said there is no question the school system needs more resources.

"We need to look at a way to get those resources," he said.

Wagner said he voted against the tax hike because of the economy.

"I know the schools are struggling," he said. "But many people are struggling, with foreclosures, loss of jobs and health care costs. It's especially hard on senior citizens."

The finalized county budget will be presented at a public hearing on April 16.

 
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