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Battling Referendums: School Tax Will Compete With Building Tax in November

| July 22, 2010

Which foundation do you prefer?

Trevor Tucker is undecided. Board member Andy Dance is against it. But “The Girls,” as the three other Flagler County School Board members like to refer to themselves—Board Chairwoman Evie Shellenberger, Sue Dickinson and Colleen Conklin—have already decided it: The school board will ask voters to approve a school tax on the Nov. 2 ballot because, they say, the district can’t afford to drop $2 million when it faces a potential loss of $7 to $9 million next year.

The board, following former Superintendent Bill Delbrugge’s recommendation, looked like it had killed the idea earlier this summer. But following a deft move by Superintendent Janet Valentine, the issue was revived at a meeting this week, and Valentine got her way. (Read the full story of Valentine’s skillful revival of the issue here.)

That school tax will compete with another that’s already made it onto the ballot: the “economic development” tax officially put forward by Enterprise Flagler, the public-private partnership, but conceived and endorsed by the Flagler County Chamber of Commerce. That tax would pay for new, large commercial office or light industrial buildings in the county to entice large companies to move in.

Both taxes are for the same amount: $0.25 for every $1,000 in any property’s taxable value. So the typical home in Flagler County, assessed at $150,000, and with a homestead exemption, would pay an extra $25 a year for the commercial-building tax. But the levy for schools would be slightly higher–$31 for that $150,000 home—because only half the $50,000 homestead exemption may be applied to school taxes. Conversely, the school levy would raise $2 million at current valuations, the commercial-building tax would raise about $1.8 million.

There’s a major difference between the two taxes. The commercial-building tax would be entirely new. The school tax is not new. Property owners are already paying it. The reason it will appear on the ballot is because of a shell game turned into law by the Florida Legislature earlier this year: until now, school boards have had the authority, year after year, to vote for the extra revenue tax. The Flagler County School Board has been doing so routinely, and generating the consequent revenue. Three years ago, when school valuations were at $12.3 billion, the tax brought in an extra $3 million. That revenue has been cut by a third because property values have fallen by a third, which is why the tax would now bring in just $2 million next year.

The new law still allows school boards to raise that extra revenue locally, but it forces boards to put the levy to referendum. Boards may no longer approve it. It’s up to voters. It’ll look like a new tax on the November ballot, but in fact voters have been paying for it all along, making that school levy a continuation of an existing tax—not an additional tax. School board members will be at pains to explain that one to voters in the coming months, knowing that most voters won’t get it: a tax on a ballot is usually interpreted as a new tax.

The commercial-building tax is a new tax. And no matter how either the chambers’ champions of that tax or the school system’s champions of the school tax interpret their levies, the two taxes will either undermine each other or put voters in a difficult choice, if they don’t want to vote for both. They’ll have to decide between paying for school services (the school tax helps pay for teachers, substitutes, school programs and the like) at a time of severe budget cuts in schools as opposed to paying for commercial buildings that may or may not bring companies to town several years from now (at a time of severe unemployment).

Board members during and after the July 20 meeting explained their positions.

“We’re at the bone now,” Conklin said. “You cut $2 million, and if the state doesn’t come up with a plan for the stimulus money, the bottom line is we’re looking at a $7.4 million funding cliff. It’s not popular, but it would almost be irresponsible for us not to really consider putting that forward. The .25 in particular, being that it’s continued funding, I actually think it will pass. I think it will pass. But I will say that I think it will do harm to the economic development piece that’s on the ballot. If people have a choice, they’re going to pick the schools over that, and I think that that may be some of the original reasons why we did not move forward to put the .25 on the ballot. But I wasn’t elected to mind the economic development other than making sure we have a prepared workforce for them. I mean, really, truly, if you think about it, economic stimulus? If you cut sports, if you cut afterschool programming, if you cut—I mean, what’s left to cut? If you cut those, those are the things that keep students in school. If you cut the programming that keeps kids in school, it’s all cyclical. It’s all going to come around. ”

Shellenberger, who didn’t actually say which way she’d go during the meeting, clarified afterward, unequivocally: “I believe we should put it on the ballot, so that if it doesn’t pass, or when we get to that cliff that falls off,  we have tried, it is a continuation of money, it’s not new money, so it’s a continuation of money, and that we have at least taken that effort to try to keep generating funds to keep generating funds for the programs we’ve got going on.”

Dickinson was not as enthusiastic. “I hate to say that I don’t think it’ll pass but I don’t think it’ll pass,” she said. “So if it’s not going to cost us to put it on the ballot what’s the harm in putting it out there?” The public would have to be educated and convinced that it’s not a new tax.

And Dance was flatly opposed, because he was more concerned about another levy the school district will be asking voters to renew in 2012—a half-penny sales surtax that pays for construction and technology in the schools. The county and Palm Coast will also be asking voters to renew a half-penny sales tax of their own at the same time. “My opinions haven’t changed,” Dance said. “I’m still not in favor of going out. I think we’re going to kill ourselves in the long run by having the referendum out at the same time as the economic development, and I think the backlash will be felt when we go out for the half-penny, and I think the half-penny is too important as a 10-year duration, for the capital and the technology.”

Asked why he was non-committal, Tucker said it was because of the other levy already on the ballot: “Economic development. I don’t know if two things on the ballot at one time would just crush both of them, or if one has a chance or not. But I’m going to ask around, and I’m going to get some other people’s opinion on it, if they think it’ll crush the ballot for both of them.” When asked which he would pick if he had to make a choice, Tucker said: “I’d pick the school system all day long. But I want to talk to the economic development people and ask them how they feel if they have any chance at all. Because I don’t think they have a chance. But if they say we really really really think we’re going to make this, we’re really really going to do this, then I probably might not want to go out for .25. But now, if they say, it doesn’t look good, then I’m going to say we’re going to throw it on there.” Will they actually tell Tucker they don’t have a chance? “I hope so. I hope they tell me the truth. The truth would be right now, I don’t know if anyone has a chance unless we can get out there really, really pushing it, and we’re really going to have to stress: this is a continuation, nothing new.”

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18 Responses for “Battling Referendums: School Tax Will Compete With Building Tax in November”

  1. Jim Guines says:

    The only question here is if or not that Andy has a conflict of interest. Is he not or is he a director on the board of the chamber???

  2. says:

    i am voting no on any new tax and am voting all incumbents out

  3. Gerry says:

    No vote here

  4. dlf says:

    What are these people thinking, look at the jobless rate in Flagler, look at the homes being lost. Again it requires less brain power to increase our tax; in place of finding ways to cut costs. May be the gang of girls need to find a real job instead of the goverment dole, oh, I forgot there are no jobs in Flagler. They could start by cutting their pay, what is it now $20,000 to $25,000. Vote no and vote them out!

  5. some guy says:

    I am all in with no votes on all tax increase. Also maybe we need adult women not girls on the board!

  6. Cheryl says:

    Yes vote here. The 2011-12 school year, and possibly mid-year this year, our district is going to be facing horrible, horrible cuts from the state. The sort of cuts that WILL cause lay-offs and program cuts in our schools. Not little dinky programs, big ones that serve large numbers of students and although extra-curricular, they are the sort of programs that we all enjoyed or at least at the opportunity to participate in when we were younger. For many kids, they are programs that keep them anchored in an academic environment. It makes me want to cry and scream at the same time that we are screwing up the one shot each of these children will ever get as high school students, or 6th graders or 2nd graders because we are so focused on just shooting down anything that has the word “tax” in it.

    THIS IS NOT A NEW TAX. We are already paying it and it amounts to a whopping $31 a year. They’re asking us to extend it. That’s all. And considering the state isn’t doing anything to rectify the situation in education funding, why can’t we all give up one dinner out at Ruby Tuesday or Woody’s next year and give it to the school district so they can educate our kids.

  7. Pierre Tristam says:

    Some guy: Just a point of information, from one who’s seen these “girls” in action for 10 years: they happen to have the brass ones on that board, not the men.

  8. some guy says:

    Thats nice my point is on adults vs kids not men vs women. It is easy to say we need more $$ so raise taxes and it takes real work to cut speending when in hard times. As an example we are now paying the boss of the schools more $$ then the old one and i am sure we have other things like that we do not know of.

  9. Jim Guines says:

    As far as I can see one has his nose so far up the chambers’ agenda that he is caught with a serious conflict of interest forcing him to not support the school system’s need to support the tax for the board. I saw this coming.

  10. H Peter Stolz says:

    A resounding NO vote to both revenue issues. The politicians in this county and state and country will never “get” the message that the voters have tried to get them to understand. So now we vote to limit revenue sources and vote them out of office where possible and maybe then the existing and new office holders will get the message. People on Social Security didn’t get a cost of living adjusment this year; Congress did, the president did, teachers in this county did.

  11. Bob Cuff says:

    I’ll vote for it. I know there are plenty of folks in Flagler County who can’t afford the taxes on the books now, let alone increases, (I counsel people facing foreclosure almost every day) but continuing to cut funding to our schools is just eating our seed corn. If any of the current or future pipedreams of economic development for Flagler are ever going to come true, we need better educated students who are prepared for a workplace that doesn’t look even remotely like the one most of us stepped into when we graduated from high school.

  12. Jim Guines says:

    I think even people like H. Peter Stolz will support the tax issue once he understands that it is not truly an increase but a game being played by the state policy makers to move the heat from the state level to the local level. This will be the same situation with the one-half penny tax in 2012. It will be a continuation, not a new tax,, If any group should be able to “educate” the public, I think the school board should be able. They are supposed to be good at that.

  13. HOPE says:

    THIS IS NOT A NEW TAX! It is a continuation of the current formula. Dr. Guines is exactly right – it is nothing but a shell game the state is playing with people. Again, this is NOT a new tax. However, if the district doesn’t attempt to educate the public on it and see if it will pass the district will be forced to cut 2 million on top of a 5 million dollar funding cliff (created by the stimulus $$$) they are sitting on. That would be devestating to the families in this area and the quality of education this district provides the public..

  14. Jim Guines says:

    I never thought that I would see the day when the school system and the chamber of commerce would bump heads on a tax issue, but here it is. I must say that I have comments on this site where I indicated that this may happen. Someone, school board and chamber or both is going to have to do a lot of community educating or one or both is going to lose. Anyone caught in the middle has got themselves a very serious conflict of interest.

  15. Brad says:

    Although I am all for supporting the schools, I am opposed to these types of tax referendums. Now that we have 2 at one time coming up, I am even more opposed. This is exactly what I had thought would happen with this type of plan which is to add multiple side taxes onto everyone’s existing property tax. Once this is done you will have more and more being added on. It’s not the way to approach the financial issues. Our existing property taxes contribute. A big no vote from me on both.

  16. Harry says:

    We are in a recession! This will probably be a depression. If you are for a tax, I’m for your opponent.

  17. Jim Guines says:

    I am hoping that the fact that Andy Dance is on the school board and the chamber’s board of directors that will be useful in helping understanding what can be lost by the schools. If the schools are not successful in getting approval for its $2,000,000 it will truly have major problems this coming school year.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Your Move Andy!!!!

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