Tax increase was a hard decision, but it needed to be made

Published 8:38 am Friday, May 25, 2012

During last week’s Decatur County Board of Education meeting, a hard, but necessary, decision was made to raise the annual ad valorem tax on property by three mills.

Faced with a $2.2 million gap between annual revenues and annual expenses, the board made a choice to give the school system the needed funding to give all school children in Decatur County the best chance to succeed.

While the budgetary gap is nothing new, the system has faced more expenses than revenue for at least the last four years, the method in which to fill that gap had to change. In years past, the board relied upon a once-robust reserve fund to make up the difference, in lieu of raising taxes.

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The reserve fund was about to run dry and a tough choice had to be made. It’s a choice that I don’t like, and I don’t know of anyone who owns property in the county who will jump with joy at the prospect of paying more taxes. But, it’s the correct choice and one that I understand.

Anyone who runs a business — and at the core the Decatur County School System is operated like a business — understands that the easiest way to fill a budget gap is to manage and reduce expenses. What the school system is facing is not an expense problem, it’s a revenue problem.

The state of Georgia reduced the system’s funding by $4.12 million. That reduction, when added to state-mandated expense increases of just over $1 million, leads to a larger portion of the funding burden to the local level. Thus, the millage rate increase.

The school system will operate with 24 less staff next year, which was down 29.5 from the previous year, which was down 25.5 from the previous year, which was down 22 from the previous year. In total, the system is offering the same services to the same number of students with 101 less staff members than four years ago, an 11.5-percent decrease.

All of these reductions have come via retirements and resignations. In essence, no one was laid off due to budgetary concerns — the system has simply not replaced those employees who left the system voluntarily.

When you consider that employee salaries and benefits account for 87 percent of the total general fund expense, that’s a very significant reduction in expenses.

And, I have heard many people comment say, “If we didn’t have that big new $50 million high school, we wouldn’t be in the shape we’re in now.”

Well, those folks are correct. The situation would be worse if not for the new high school. Remember, when the new high school was opened and the system was reorganized, two schools were shuttered.

Without the new high school, we would still operate Lillian B. Williams Elementary School and West Bainbridge Middle School. That’s two additional sets of administrators, teachers, and support staff.

Plus, that debt payments being made on the new high school do not come from the general fund. The debt service is being paid with E-SPLOST funds and does not affect the general fund at all. The public had the opportunity to vote on whether or not to fund the construction of a new high school, and the public approved it.

If it sounds like I am defending the school board’s decision to raise the millage rate, I am. They really had no other choice. Again, it doesn’t mean I like it. No one looks forward to incurring an additional tax burden, but I understand it.

They basically had two choices: increase property taxes or reduce the quality of education that Decatur County students currently receive. To me, that’s a choice that would be easily made. I don’t like it, but I understand and accept it.

Jeff Findley is the publisher of The Post-Searchlight. You can email him at