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School Board appeases steamed homeowners

After a public outcry, the School Board votes to cut the tax rate that will support public schools this year, and the budget as well.

By EDDY RAMIREZ
Published September 14, 2006


INVERNESS - After hearing complaints from dozens of property owners about runaway property taxes, the School Board voted unanimously Tuesday night in a mostly symbolic gesture to lower the tax rate that will support public schools this fiscal year.

The board adopted a $216-million total budget that calls for a tax rate of 7.46 mills. The original proposal called for an additional $2-million in spending and a tax rate of 7.66 mills.

The new tax rate means that the owner of a property assessed at $150,000, who claims the $25,000 homestead exemption, would pay $933 in taxes to support schools. Last year, the same owner would have paid $990. One mill equals $1 of tax per $1,000 of a property's assessed value.

Despite the lower tax rate, most homeowners will pay more than last year because of higher assessments. A majority at Tuesday's meeting were new homeowners who don't claim homestead exemptions and aren't protected by a law that caps increases in property values at 3 percent.

The crowd cheered anyway when superintendent Sandra "Sam" Himmel announced the lower tax rate.

"I won't change your assessed values much," Himmel said. "But maybe this will make a statement to the others that we have heard you."

Longtime school officials acknowledged they were overwhelmed by the public outcry.

Sam Hurst, the district's executive director of business operations, said he couldn't recall another hearing when the board had agreed to slash the budget and lower the tax rate under public pressure.

"We have never seen this kind of response," said Pat Deutschman, who has been a board member since 1998.

Tuesday's vote came after more than three hours of debate that included angry homeowners threatening to start petitions and throw board members out of office.

Board Chairman Lou Miele, who is in a runoff for the District 3 seat, urged calm several times when tempers flared.

One woman became emotional when she said she would have to sell her new home because she wouldn't be able to afford the higher taxes.

"I have never given birth to a child and y'all want $700 from a single individual," she said. "That's absurd."

James Atkinson, who built a home a year ago, said he wasn't sure he could find a buyer who would be willing to pay the county's property taxes.

"You're trapping us in this county," Atkinson said. "If I try to sell my house, the first question will be, 'How much are your taxes?' And they're going to say, 'Forget it.' "

Bud Groble, a 71-year-old retiree from Missouri, questioned the district's funding formula.

"My grandfather always said, 'Figures never lie, but sometimes liars figure,' " he said. "All I'd like is some realistic answers to this question: 'Why am I faced by this?' "

School officials empathized with Groble and others in the crowd but said they couldn't do much to help. They repeatedly tried to explain that the state sets most of the local tax rate.

"I know you're frustrated," Deutschman said. "But most of your questions are for the property appraiser. We can't change the way the system works."

The crowd responded that the property appraiser had encouraged them to seek relief from the taxing authorities, including the School Board.

At another point, Deutschman told the crowd to air their concerns with state lawmakers who, she said, attach strings to much of the money received by school districts.

"Then why are we here?" people in the audience shouted.

"Is this budget already fixed?" homeowner James Griffin said. "Are we wasting our time?"

Griffin, who is also a real estate agent, questioned why the district was spending $35-million more this year, 19 percent more than last.

When the crowd learned that the district had absorbed only 200 additional students this year, people hissed and gasped.

"We're trying to plan for the growth," Miele said, becoming visibly upset.

Himmel tried to appease the crowd and explain the district's expenses.

"It looks like our budget increased, but it's not necessarily because we sat in a building one day and said, "We're going to keep spending,' " she said.

The district's budget includes about $63 million for capital projects that include school renovations, classroom additions, new buses and a new elementary school.

This year's budget also includes about $130-million for classroom expenses, including employee salaries and benefits. Much of the money has been earmarked to lower class sizes, Himmel said.

After continued appeals from the crowd, Himmel pulled her top administrators outside. Minutes later, she returned with a recommendation for the board to lower the capital outlay tax by two-tenths of a percentage point, reducing the district's budget by $2-million.

The crowd of property owners thanked the board and the superintendent for taking action.

They hailed the board's decision as a small win for property owners and pledged to take their fight to other taxing authorities.

"Come that darn County Commission meeting, they'll have a real bite out of their rear ends," said real estate agent C.J. Dixon.

Some board members even agreed to join the crowd at the meeting and to show support for their cause.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at eramirez@sptimes.com or 860-7305.