Schools, Hamilton County agree to further PILOT talks

Schools, Hamilton County agree to further PILOT talks

September 29th, 2011 by Ansley Haman in News

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith, left, listens as Hamilton County Commissioner Warren Mackey talks during a meeting Wednesday at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

Photo by Angela Lewis/Times Free Press.

Four Hamilton County commissioners, four school board members and school Superintendent Rick Smith agreed Wednesday to further talks about how to spend $1.15 million in education funds currently being kept by the county.

As a result, Commissioner Chester Bankston said he would agree temporarily to table his effort to return to the school board control of the pot of payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, money earmarked for education.

PILOT agreements are tax breaks used to lure companies, such as Volkswagen. Under the agreements, businesses don't have to pay full property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that is slated for schools.

Commissioners voted in February to become gatekeeper of revenues resulting from PILOT agreements made in recent years. Those agreements will produce an estimated $3 million a year in education funds from the likes of Volkswagen and Amazon.

Bankston voted for the measure then, but now says there's a new superintendent he trusts to manage the money well.

"I just felt like that we're actually trying to micromanage the school system," said Bankston, a former school board member. "It's their money and I didn't feel like we should be telling them how to spend it."

In July, Smith was chosen to replace former Superintendent Jim Scales, who had a contentious relationship with the County Commission, which doles out the school system's budget.

Hamilton County Commissioner Chester Bankston from District 9

Commission Education Committee Chairman Warren Mackey called the Wednesday meeting to address Bankston's request to return the PILOT funds to the school board. He told Smith and four school board members who attended that commissioners wanted to see a plan for the money.

"We're in a political environment where you have everybody saying, 'Let's live within our means,'" Mackey said. "[The commission] is going to be very sensitive to every penny of tax money it collects."

Commissioners Jim Fields and Tim Boyd asked why school representatives hadn't presented proposals for the $1.15 million collected this year.

"The only thing the commission is asking is that we are in the loop about exactly what those funds are going to be used for," Boyd said.

After the meeting, Smith said he would prefer the commission not attach strings to how the school district spend its PILOT funds. He doesn't want school officials to have to approach the commission for PILOT money every time a capital expense comes up, he said.

"I would prefer that step not be there," he said. "Obviously, I would prefer that we have trust and accountability already expected of these dollars."

Smith said he will discuss the next steps with the school board in a meeting today.

Though Bankston agreed to allow the school board time to present a proposal for the PILOT money, he said after the meeting that he still wants the funds to be controlled by the school board.

"They're an elected body as well," Bankston said. "They're responsible; they're accountable."

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