published Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

Finance committee discusses PILOT funds

by Dan Whisenhunt

School board members kept up their war of words Tuesday over a county commission decision to withhold millions in tax revenue from the school district.

In a letter to county commissioners, Superintendent Jim Scales and school board attorney Scott Bennett warned that commissioners' recent decision to withhold about $6 million in payment in lieu of taxes revenue would be illegal.

During a Board of Education finance committee meeting, member Rhonda Thurman said she disagrees with the tone of the letter and said school leaders were disrespectful to county commissioners.

"I do not personally appreciate the tone of the letter," Thurman said. "It sounded very threatening to me."

Scales told board members, "I think the tone set by our county commissioners was disrespectful."

School board member Linda Mosley agreed, saying commissioners "weren't exactly friendly" to school board members.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry and Commissioner Joe Graham, who proposed setting aside the PILOT money for school construction, disagreed that commissioners had been disrespectful.

"Hamilton County does not have the luxury of setting a tone," Graham said. "Who do we actually serve here? Our primary concern is for the taxpayer."

County Trustee Bill Hullander said he'd like for the state attorney general to weigh in on whether he should give the schools money the county receives from payment in lieu of taxes agreements.

"Basically I wanted to ask him is if what the County Commission did, does he agree that's OK," Hullander said. "Is it OK for me as trustee to do what they have instructed me to do?"

Chief Financial Officer Tommy Kranz told school board members during their committee meeting that the board has longer-term issues. He said the $6 million in PILOT money that would be brought in by Volkswagen would be used to balance the 2012 budget. That still would leave the board facing a nearly $30 million gap between revenues and expenses between fiscal year 2012 and fiscal year 2017.

Resolving the school district's chronic, long-term revenue shortfalls involves getting the school system's full amount of education funding from the state and finding efficiencies within the system. He told board members it is mathematically possible to cut $6 million out of central office expenses, as suggested by County Commissioner Tim Boyd. However, he said the cuts would hamstring the school system's ability to provide basic services. It would require eliminating at least 34.31 percent of all personnel from every department within the central office, he said.

Staff writer Kate Harrison contributed to this story.

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about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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