Schools seek more funds; Hamilton County says no tax hike

Schools seek more funds; Hamilton County says no tax hike

April 11th, 2012 by Ansley Haman in News

Hamilton County Commissioner Joe Graham

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County school system, which annually accounts for more than half of the county's budget, is projecting to spend at least $10 million more in general purpose funds next fiscal year.

The county's budget process is heating up for fiscal 2013, which begins July 1. The schools' adopted general purpose budget for this fiscal year was $316.5 million. An early draft of next year's budget request hits $329.5 million.

At least five of the nine commissioners said Tuesday they'll refuse to vote for a tax increase to meet school budget demands if it comes to that. Some even said they won't vote for a budget increase, period.

Commission Vice Chairman Fred Skillern said he's "not going to get involved in trying to run their business, but I am not voting for a tax increase and I am not voting to give anybody any more money."

The County Commission is in charge of approving the schools' budget and finances construction projects, but the Board of Education determines how the money will be spent and oversees the operations of schools.

Commissioner Chester Bankston, a former school board member who said he's sympathetic with the budget pressures, said he's also opposed to any revenue increases outside the natural growth designated for schools.

"Everybody is having to tighten their belts," Bankston said. "There will not be a tax increase this year."

County Mayor Jim Coppinger sent a January memo asking department heads and elected officials not to request more money than they received last year.

The Board of Education's Finance Committee has considered the superintendent's proposed budget request, and school board members have held one workshop to discuss the budget and plan another one for Thursday.

Commissioner Joe Graham said he's disappointed that the preliminary projected budget doesn't include more money for maintenance.

A yearlong debate ended on how to spend payment-in-lieu-of-tax money -- also known as PILOT funds -- designed to help fund school growth ended in February, when schools regained control of $4.7 million from the PILOT agreements. Graham wanted that money to go to maintenance.

"In my opinion that should be going toward the growth," Graham said. "When we build a $30 million school, maintaining that school is key."

Under PILOT agreements, the money comes from the county's deals to lure businesses such as Volkswagen to the area. In the deals, businesses are allowed to pay only the schools' portion of their property taxes for a certain number of years.

Lack of funding is not the problem with local education, Commissioner Tim Boyd said.

"We've got the second-highest system in the state in terms of money per student," he said. "Why are the others outperforming us? Money isn't the answer."

Commissioners have taken steps in the past year to supplement the schools' budget, Commissioner Mitch McClure said.

Among the steps were buying the empty David Brainerd School, a private school on Igou Gap Road that closed in 2009, for more than $3 million, giving the school system room for expansion. The commission also paid for land in Ooltewah for the new Ooltewah Elementary School and refinanced debt to make $50 million available for the school system's capital projects.

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