TIMES TRIBUNE (CORBIN, Ky.)
By Charlotte Underwood / Staff Writer
A Laurel County Board of Education public hearing was held Wednesday evening in regards to a proposed general fund tax levy of 48.8 cents on real property and 48.8 cents on personal property.
Around 40 people attended the hearing, with only seven of those signing in and addressing the audience with their opinion on the proposal. Four of those who spoke opposed it, two were for it and one gentleman did not really voice either way.
Board attorney Larry Bryson facilitated the hearing and set up the speaking guidelines, asking individuals to keep comments under five minutes if possible to “budget time.” Bryson also explained to the public that the school board was required by law to set a tax rate and did it every year, but that the board would not make a decision regarding the increase until the next meeting. Bryson then read aloud the information regarding the proposed tax levy fund increase.
“The General Fund tax levied in fiscal year 2013 was 47 cents on real property and 47 cents on personal property and produced a revenue of $12,194,498.32. The proposed General Fund tax rate of 48.8 cents on real property and 48.8 cents on personal property is expected to produce $12,829,446.09. Of this amount, $1,946,262.19 is from new and personal property. The compensating tax for 2014 is 47 cents on real property and 47 cents on personal property and is expected to produce $12,356,228.81. The General Areas to which revenue of $634,947.77 above 2013 revenue is to be allocated are as follows: cost of collections, $12,851.34; building fund, $0; instruction, $622,096.43; transportation $0, and maintenance of plant, $0.”
Before opening the forum up to the public, Laurel County School Superintendent Doug Bennett spoke to the crowd.
“It’s a privilege to have such a forum as this to share our concerns … I appreciate all of you being here doing your civic duty,” Bennett said. He explained that everyone in the room shared the common ground and interest of Laurel County and its children deserving the best.
“Any worthy endeavor requires adequate funding and resources and this is precisely the challenge that brings us all together here this evening. The fact is the state and federal government have failed to adequately fund the education of Laurel County students as well as students across the commonwealth,” Bennett said, adding that it “was certainly not due to a lack of taxing at the state and federal level.” He cited a revenue decrease of $1.1 million compared to last year’s budget and a “continuing increase in expenditures.”
“They have not increased by any fault or mismanagement of Laurel County School District, in fact the district has managed to cut our expenditures by $939,000. The problem is state and federal governments are adding to the expenditures as quick as we can cut them,” Bennett said. He cited a “collection of unfunded mandates” from Frankfort as the reasoning for the need of an increase.
“They are asking school district and school staff to do much more with no additional funding,” Bennett said, before breaking down what the proposed property tax rate increase would mean to tax payers.
“It is approximately two cents per $100 of assessed property value. For example, the proposed increase would be $20 a year on a home assessed at $100,000, or 38 cents per week, “ Bennett said, adding that the proposal was not something the school board was happy or excited about considering.
“It is the last thing that any of us would want to do in this time, but it is important that you know that school districts have no other way of generating anymore revenue at this point, we have been told that point blank,” Bennett said.
According to Bennett, the increase in revenue would be used to “adequately fund objectives, which will help us drive an increase in student learning and the quality of services that we offer. For instance, we have a need to purchase text books for our students. This funding has been eliminated from the state budget for the past four years,” Bennett said. Another example he gave regarding state funding cuts was professional development training for teachers, which is state mandated.
“That has to be paid for, but it is not adequately funded. This year we had no choice but to not rehire 28 classified staff. That is not a decision we want to do, we want to ensure that Laurel County staff is the best we can find,” Bennett said. Bennett also spoke briefly about the Career Ready Center that is being built and assured the public the construction of the center had nothing to do with the increase in taxes.
“Funding for all new construction in a school district is separate and apart from the general fund. That comes out from an allocation for a capital outlay in restricted funds, the only thing that money can be used for is construction,” Bennett said.
Public comments came from both those opposing and supporting the tax levy increase. Joel Gilliam spoke on behalf of the real estate profession and voiced his concerns that the increase would negatively affect the local housing market.
“The economy is driven by real estate. There is a direct relationship between increased taxes and purchase range, which draws the local housing market down,” Gilliam said.
Laurel County School Nurse and Health Coordinator Duff Holcomb spoke in favor of the increase. She cited the changes in health care needs of children at school as one of the reasons the increase was needed.
“When I started, the biggest problem I had may have been the occasional case of head lice … I had never heard of autism … as things have evolved, we’ve seen more fragile kids and kids with more health care needs coming to school,” Halcomb said. She explained that in the Laurel County School system there were 10 nurses and 9,400 children.
“These students are our future … we need to look at the health care of our kids and we have lots to teach them as far as preventative health care and sometimes the school is the only avenue where they get that. I think that any of us would be willing to give just a little bit for our kids, our grandkids and for the future of Laurel County,” Halcomb said.
Kentucky State Police Officer David Phelps also addressed the audience with his opposition to the increase.
“I disagree this is the only resort to remedy the problems. To put this on the working people of Laurel County who probably make a lot less than us and don’t have our pay, our retirement, our health insurance, well I don’t think there is a lot of support out there for this,” Phelps said. He said the way the economy was right now was not the time to increase taxes.
“You are taxing your hard working people that can’t afford to be taxed anymore. I just think it is time to tighten belts, we all are and I think the school board can do the same without drastic cuts and doom and gloom and the sky is falling,” Phelps said.
Retired Laurel County teacher Donna Gail House also spoke. She now works with the Kentucky Association of Professional Educators, a teaching organization.
“While I am a property owner in Laurel County and don’t like taxes any more than anyone else, there is a lot of changes coming down and they have been mandated to districts that they don’t have any choice about,” House said. According to House, a teacher evaluation system that is not funded has been mandated for the state.
“It is a program that has cost millions of dollars in other states, yet they are expecting districts to swallow that and they don’t have any other choice. I am not saying taxes are good or taxes are bad, but taxes are necessary,” House said.
High School Association Sports Officiator Raleigh Anders spoke to the audience of the need for better lighting at the North and South Laurel High School Football fields.
Local pastor Marvin Helton voiced his opposition to the tax increase, saying it would amount to more money than people realized.
“The tax isn’t just going to be on property, it will be on every bill you get every month. It’s too much, let’s do something realistic,” Helton said.
Steve Lesperance was the final person to address the issue with his opposition. His comments were short and to the point.
“Being on a fixed income, the increase would be a burden on us, especially as we get older,” Lesperance said.
The school board will not make a decision on the increase until the next meeting, which will be at 5 p.m. Sept. 23rd at the administration building.