Residents rip into School Board on taxes



Proposed budget gets public hearing

Friday, August 05, 2005
By Christine Harvey
St. Tammany bureau

A handful of residents lashed out Thursday night at the St. Tammany Parish School Board, objecting to the idea of raising taxes in support of a budget they called fiscally irresponsible.

"I want to tell you, my people are angry," said Donald Wassel, president of the Merrywood Estates Property Owners Association. "Our votes and our taxes make your positions possible. You don't need more money. You need more fiscal responsibility."

Wassel, joined by several of his neighbors, offered his comments at a hearing on the board's proposed budget for the 2005-06 fiscal year.

He questioned what he called an "obscenely top-heavy" budget and estimated the School Board's administrative expenses at roughly 30 percent, noting that private companies with more than 12 percent administrative costs tend to "raise a red flag" and often go bankrupt because they can't go to taxpayers for additional money.

Ron Caruso, the system's director of business affairs, disputed Wassel's figures after the meeting, saying administrative costs are closer to 25 percent, of which a considerable amount goes to pay for transportation, food preparation and other services for students.

Spending detailed

Superintendent Gayle Sloan presented the board with the budget Tuesday, proposing to spend $285.1 million, a 5 percent increase from last year.

The proposal calls for spending $15.2 million more than the system will receive.

It also suggests depleting all but roughly $14,000 of the board's emergency surplus, which stood at nearly $45 million two years ago. Most of the money would go toward skyrocketing health care costs, increasing employee salaries and the expenses associated with a rapidly growing student population, officials said.

The board had $16.4 million in its "rainy day" fund at the end of the 2004-05 fiscal year, which ended June 30. In addition to drawing on the surplus to help balance the budget, Sloan proposed moving the remaining $1.2 million into a fund to maintain and improve the system's AA bond rating, which is the highest of the state's school systems.

Susan Malone, who lives in Merrywood Estates, outside Folsom, said the School Board seems either unable or unwilling to stand by the definition of the word budget, noting that it means adjusting expenses around revenue, not the other way around. She challenged the board not only to give the parish's students the best education in the state, "but to do so with a budget that is not balanced on the back of property owners."

The board will make a final decision on the budget at its Sept. 8 meeting.

Two options

To help offset spending, Sloan has suggested the board roll forward its millage rate to collect additional property taxes and presented two options for the board to consider.

The first option would roll the rate forward by 6.64 mills, letting the system recoup about $5.5 million it lost last year when parish Assessor Patricia Schwarz Core requested that taxing bodies roll back their millage after a parishwide property reassessment.

In the second option, the system would recover nearly $8.8 million by rolling the rate forward by 10.51 mills, or the rate at which the board levied taxes in 2003.

The first option would cost the owner of a home valued at $175,000 an additional $66.40, while the second would cost an additional $105.10.

Sloan has said she favors the first option. The system's millage rate now stands at 74.59 mills: 50.69 mills for general fund expenses and 23.9 mills for repaying bonded debt.

State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, asked the board to practice restraint when deciding whether to increase taxes. He said the tax situation in St. Tammany has reached a point where it is putting a burden on homeowners as well as business owners, who could choose to relocate to neighboring Tangipahoa Parish or Hancock County, Miss., at roughly half the tax cost.

Second hearing planned

The board will hold a second hearing Tuesday at 7 p.m., and will decide immediately afterward whether to raise the rate.

Neal Hennegan was the only School Board member who objected Tuesday to raising taxes, saying he would like to consider other options, such as tapping the $17.8 million the board keeps in reserve to maintain its bond rating. The board also has $17 million set aside for construction projects in association with the 2004 bond issue.

In preparing her proposal, Sloan cut nearly $8.4 million from last year's revised budget. The cuts include textbooks, from $4.26 million to $1 million; $1.8 million in construction costs; and $1.1 million in technology costs.

Sloan said the board would have to make substantial cuts in personnel during the 2006-07 fiscal year if it chooses not to raise taxes, noting that an additional $5.5 million -- option one -- would pay the salaries and benefits for about 90 teachers.

Elsie Burkhalter, president of the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees, said the teachers she represents would not accept a pay cut to make up for any shortfalls. She reminded the board that teachers will receive a raise of just $800 next year, while support employees will receive $550.

"I don't want to see the school system take one step backward," she said. "We've got to continue with the process."

Richard Haydel, who lives in Mandeville, noted that $5.5 million comprises just 1.9 percent of the proposed budget. He said if the board can't make some tough decisions when it comes to cutting such a small amount, "then I think somebody's not doing their job in that regard."
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Christine Harvey can be reached at
charvey@timespicayune.com or (985) 645-2853.

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