Surprise on school tax cost: Ballot wording means taxpayers will see 2 referendum levies this year

For this year only, Brown County Schools will collect more referendum money than county taxpayers expected to pay on their property taxes.

Last May, voters approved adding 8 cents per $100 of assessed value to the property tax rate. The new money would total about $1 million a year for seven years.

That was the second referendum voters had approved for the school district. The first, passed in 2010, was at a 1-cent rate that directly funded the CRC. Voters approved it for seven years.

When the school board and administrators were talking about putting the second referendum on the ballot, they had told voters that if a second referendum was approved, the first one would be stopped at six years.

But at the March 16 school board meeting, Superintendent Laura Hammack — who was hired months after the referendum discussions — announced that the Department of Local Government Finance is requiring the district to collect the tax rates from both referendums for property taxes due this year.

This means taxpayers will pay a total of 9 cents on every $100 of assessed property value for this year only, Hammack said.

In addition to current property taxes, the 9-cent rate means an additional $126 on a home valued at $140,000, Auditor Beth Mulry said. Taxes are calculated on property value after all deductions are considered. The 8-cent rate would have cost $112 on that same value of home.

At the March 16 meeting, parent Robyn Rosenberg-Bowman questioned the school board and Hammack about the previous statements made about the first referendum stopping if a second was approved.

“I think we thought they could do that, then they said no,” school board Vice President Judy Hardwick said.

She said the DLGF instructed the school board that because of the way both ballot questions were written, they have to collect money from both referendums for the full seven years.

“We’re bound by that,” Hardwick said.

Hammack said she is concerned that the DLGF budget order conflicts with what the public was told before a referendum was placed on the ballot.

“I’m really troubled that this is a surprise. That is very upsetting to me,” she said.

“I am struggling with how this went off track. … I don’t know if the district received counsel that was inaccurate. It’s really challenging for me to speak about how that kind of came to be.”

DLGF Director of Communications Jenny Banks said the department did not have any discussion with the school about forgoing the final year of the first referendum.

“Some schools will forgo the last year, but it’s not obligatory,” Banks said.

Hammack said the school district has to collect payments from both referendums due to the ballot questions stating that each would be for seven years.

By statute, the schools can have no more than two operating referenda simultaneously, Banks added.

Hammack said she was not aware of the comments made about stopping the first referendum until Bowman spoke up during the board meeting.

“Their certification process is one we kind of don’t question,” Hammack said of the DLGF.

“They are our governing body to the extent of certifying those budgets. I didn’t expect anything different, honestly, because the way I was looking at this was the first referendum would be exhausted, then the second referendum as indicated by the voters would start in 2017.”

Mulry said the first referendum is expected to bring in $124,901 for 2017 and the second referendum will bring in $999,208 the same year.

Spring tax bills are expected to be mailed Monday, April 10, and payments will be due by Wednesday, May 10.

The tax money will be paid in two installments to the school district in June and December this year.

Money from the first referendum will go directly to the CRC for investment purposes, Hammack said.

“As I understand it, they are really trying to use the penny for more investments in the facility — doing things like carpet, structural changes and technology,” she said.

“As I understand, the district has actually paid for most of that kind of renovation (and) technology, historically, so this will be a burden that would be off … the CPF (capital projects fund).”

From the new referendum, the CRC also will get a second penny-per-$100 of property taxes paid, and the remaining 7 cents-per-$100 will go to the school district.

The district will be using the new referendum’s money to award raises to teachers, non-certified and administrative staff and to help cover a drop in money in the general fund due to declining enrollment. It’s also going toward paying attendance bonuses and sick day reimbursements for teachers.

“We really committed to the community we would share exactly how these dollars are being expended on behalf of the CRC,” Hammack said.

“It just really, really troubles me that information that would have been presented to the public last year is different from what the reality of the certification is. Our commitment is that we’ll show where those dollars are expended and they will not be expended on anything that’s trivial. This will be investment in something we’ll be able to reap the benefits of for the long term.”

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Suzannah Couch grew up in Brown County, reading the Brown County Democrat. A 2013 Franklin College graduate, she covers business, cops/courts, education and arts/entertainment.