WCSD: No Tax Hike

A month ago, the Warren County School District’s board of directors was looking at increasing taxes on two fronts by a total of 2.4 mills – an increase of almost 5 percent.

At a special meeting Wednesday, the board approved a budget with no tax increase.

Director of Business Services Jim Grosch explained that the district spent less in 2012-2013 than expected and also had some unexpected, one-time revenues.

Those items added up to about $4.2 million and would leave the district with a fund balance of more than $9 million.

The proposal in front of the board called for only part of the tax increase included in the preliminary budget – a 1.1249-mill increase that would offset the district’s required contribution to its employees’ retirement program, PSERS. That millage would have provided about $500,000 in new taxes, according to Grosch.

Faced with a newly healthy fund balance, the seven members of the board present at the meeting voted unanimously in favor of a budget structured without a tax increase. Board members Mary Anne Paris and Marcy Morgan were absent.

The budget, with or without the tax increase, left some programs that the board listed as priorities, untouched.

“We heard the board loud and clear that they didn’t want any cuts to the middle level program,” Grosch said. “It will remain as status quo.”

“We also recommend not moving the Learning Enrichment Center,” he said. “We feel it is best to wait until the construction (at the Sheffield K-12 center) is completed.”

Dollars for long-ignored textbook replacement are also included in the budget.

The board then had to decide where to cut the anticipated $500,000 that had been included in the proposal. The main choices were socking away less against known increases to PSERS or reducing the amount included in the budget for capital improvements.

Director of Buildings and Grounds Services Dr. Norbert Kennerknecht said the capital improvements needed in the district include a number of roofing projects, maintenance at Warren Area High School, which is next on the master facilities plan, and generally “bringing systems up to speed.”

“The total exceeds $10 million looking forward,” Kennerknecht said. “We can’t ignore it.”

Board president Arthur Stewart summed up the thinking for taking money out of capital rather than PSERS. “Capital improvements are discretionary for us,” he said. “We have no choice on PSERS.”

The board decided to reduce the funds reserved for capital improvement from $1.9 million to about $1.4 million.

Board member John Grant cautioned that the annual cap on tax increases means not increasing taxes this year results in lost revenue “forever.”

“You can’t take an increased tax level next year to make up for what we might not do this year,” he said. “We don’t get that opportunity back.”

“If it hampers your ability to meet your mission, it might not be as prudent as it looks to the average taxpayer,” he said.

In the end, Grant joined the other members in voting for the budget without the increase.

Once the framework for the budget was agreed upon, the board looked for other changes.

Board member Tom Knapp recommended fully funding the district’s athletics and co-curricular activities, including doing away with pay-to-participate fees. “I think right now we’ve got the wherewithal to do it,” Knapp said.

Acting Superintendent Amy Stewart estimated the cost to fully fund those programs at $600,000 or more.

“If I found a half million dollars, I don’t know if that’s the first thing that I would consider,” Grant said.

“There were 15 items that we ranked higher than athletics” in terms of bringing back to the budget given funding, Arthur Stewart said. “You have to increase taxes if you’re going to do this. I won’t vote for a tax increase for athletics before I consider a tutoring program or a school psychologist.”

“I wholeheartedly support athletics and co-curricular activities; that’s what I did,” said board member Jack Werner, who previously was the district’s athletic coordinator. But, “I, too, would find it difficult to support” Knapp’s motion.

The motion failed with Knapp and board member Mike Zamborik voting in favor.

With no further motions to modify the expenditures, the board approved the final budget with no tax increase with only Knapp voting against.