Path of Least Resistance
As the Escambia County School Board contemplates next year’s property tax levy, I get the uneasy sense that we will be adjusting the millage rate upward, thereby taking the path of least resistance. That’s right, the easy way out. Why would I say that??—Here’s why.
It would be much more difficult to keep the millage rate right where it is-- at 7.72 --and find an alternate way to save the $2.8 Million dollars (the estimated amount of money that raising the millage to 7.883 would generate) somewhere else in the budget. I don’t want to take the path of least resistance; I am a fiscal conservative and I want to find a different solution. Before I vote to take another nearly three million dollars out of the local economy by raising the millage rate for responsible Escambia County property owners, I’d like to exhaust every other possibility first. I do not think we as a district have looked at every other possible way to hold the millage tax rate steady at 7.72 for 2009-2010.
To the contrary, we as board members have been given the talking points, the graphs, the charts, the facts, the figures, even the thirty year Escambia County Millage Levy History (here). We have been told that we MUST raise the millage rate to 7.883. We MUST do it, no other alternative is possible. We have been told that it is all the fault of [those evil] lawmakers in Tallahassee. Those irresponsible, diabolical, no-good state representatives and senators, it’s all their fault!
But is it really that simplistic? Of course not. The Governor and lawmakers did not set out to cut education, corrections, medical care for the poor, fire, police, and safety. We have a balanced budget amendment in our state, and, uh, surprise--- revenues are down! Revenues are way down. Remember, we are in a horrible recession and the worst economic shape since the Carter Administration. So the legislature had to make some incredibly difficult decisions—and everyone took a cut. I do not envy the state legislators; they have a tough and oftentimes thankless job and I will not swallow the bitter Kool-Aid being passed around education circles statewide and demonize our Governor and state lawmakers. To do so is unfair and childish. They made tough choices, they did their job, and now it is our turn to do the best we can locally.
State Lawmakers have foisted on district boards a much larger responsibility for generating school revenue locally (Raising the Required Local Effort portion of the funding formula).
State Lawmakers have dramatically decreased state level funding for Public Education Capital Outlay, or PECO. (maintenance and new construction budgets). Astonishingly, we in Escambia County have seen a cut in PECO funding for 2009-2010 of 75% over last year’s funding level, and an amazing 87% decrease from the 2007-2008 funding level.
State Lawmakers have further tied the hands of local districts by capping the millage rate of the discretionary basic portion of the funding formula.
In short, State Lawmakers have made the choices for local districts very narrow. But, in fairness, the legislature has given district school boards some flexibility by allowing for additional discretionary levies at the local level, and also the utilization of capital improvement funds for property insurance purchases. This has helped.
The average millage rate for Escambia County over the last 30 years has been 8.422 per thousand dollars of assessed property value. So, at 7.72 mills, we are currently well below that average figure. I look at this as a positive and I believe we should hold the line here and weather this current financial storm by resisting the urge to take the easy way out and raise the millage rate. Taxes are going up everywhere, automobile license fees are doubling, tobacco users are being hammered with huge tax increases, energy costs are going up, gas prices are unstable, and people are struggling to hold on. People are falling behind on their mortgages and in some instances losing their homes to foreclosure in Escambia County. We need to be careful about rationalizing tax increases by saying things like “It’s only an average of $XX.XX dollars for the average homeowner” Statements like that are flippant, and come off as insensitive at best—arrogant at worst.
And, if it is such a small, miniscule tax increase--as everyone at the workshop argued--then we should leave it there in the pockets of taxpayers rather than taking it from them and saying, "it's not that much." Taxpayers are weary, and everyone is telling them, "its not that much" and meanwhile they are being eaten alive by rising taxes from every direction. We do not have to be a part of that.
We have some flexibility-we can utilize revenues from the beach property taxes we are now collecting, we can utilize proceeds of the sale of excess properties (Molino School $400K, Wedgewood $2.8Million, Brownsville Middle School $1.4Million), we can find a way to utilize ½ cent sales tax money to the maximum extent possible, we can find a way to balance the budget without doing it by raising taxes in the midst of this current economic mess. That is my sense of this situation.
We as board members have an understanding of the complexities of the Public School Funding Model that the average citizen in our community simply does not possess. It is a complex, mind numbingly intricate formula that is constantly changing and being modified and tampered with. We can attempt to explain it, we can point the finger of blame at state legislators, but at the end of the day most will not understand it.
What the average taxpaying property owner in Escambia County simply wants to know is this—are you going to raise my taxes during this, the worst economic downturn in a generation? While some may argue the answer to that one simple question is not easy, I believe it is. We either continue working on this budget and make keeping taxes low a priority—or we raise the tax and take the path of least resistance.
With a budget of over $600,000,000.00—we can find a way to keep the millage at 7.72 if we have the will to do so.
I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.