Published DateBy Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — The prospect of at least a 10 percent increase to the school tax rate is not sitting well with budget committee members, who believe it's too much of a burden for taxpayers to be asked to bear.
Budgeteers met with school superintendent Carl Nelson last Wednesday to begin their initial review of the proposed 2013-14 school budget.
Nelson gave the committee and overview of the budget. On Jan. 3, after 55 minutes of discussion, the school board voted unanimously to accept a budget figure of $33,509,885, which went to the budget committee for its first review on Wednesday.
Board members ultimately cut an additional $103,362 from the proposed budget Jan. 3, which came on the heels of $310,632 in cuts Dec. 19, with administrators finding $149,425 in items that were not needed at this time.
Nelson explained the board, which had been seeking a zero increase to the budget aside from any health-insurance increases, learned in November that the proposed 2013-14 budget was up about 4 percent ($1.3 million), but that excludes more than $1 million in warrant articles. There is also a projected $800,000 dip in revenues, leading to an overall 15.22 percent increase to the school tax.
With over $400,000 in cuts now, the projected tax increase, if everything were to be approved including all warrant articles, would be approximately $1.16 per $1,000 of property valuation over and above the current tax. The figure will not likely increase as school officials are still looking to finalize a new teacher contract which will appear as a warrant article.
The tax hit for a person owning a $200,000 home would be an increase of $232, down from a November projection of $348.
Nelson explained the biggest increases to the proposed budget are essentially all items the school board has little control over. There's a $652,562 increase in the special education budget along with $176,781 jump in the technology budget; an increase in health insurance; fuel costs; and state-mandated retirement contributions.
Budgeteer Mark Hounsell, a former member of the school board, said taxpayers are going to have a difficult time this tax season.
"Until we can get caught up with the property tax, the taxpayers have got to get some sort of a break," he said. "We're looking at a budget that doesn't include what may be coming down the pike, there's got to be a way for the taxpayer to catch up. I'm afraid the reality is taxpayers are maxed out."
Fellow budgeteer Steve Steiner agreed.
"Last night I was talking with a senior citizen who is going to have to sell his house because he can't afford to pay the taxes," he said.
Nelson said the school board is trying to control budget increases.
"The school board has attempted to put the brakes on," he said. "They've done that by asking administrators to come in at zero (increases) or flat budgets. For the past three years the message has been no increases. Believe me there has been a very serious attempt to do that."
Hounsell wants to see the best education possible at a price the community can afford. He explained his parents are now in their 90s and they live in the house where his dad was born in Conway; his father graduated from Kennett High in 1938 and served as chairman on the Conway School Board (he cast the votes to build Conway Elementary and John Fuller School).
"The impact on the taxpayer is so huge this year," he said. "I'm hearing from people that enough is enough. We can't afford excellence off our property tax."
"I'm not going to disagree with you," Nelson replied. "We should strive for excellence, not just on property taxes. I think we do a great job of educating the kids in Conway. I agree we have to look at other options."
Hounsell said he will be looking for further areas in the budget to recommend savings.
"There needs to be a strong effort towards that," he said.
Fellow budgeteer John Edgerton explained with a 10 percent increase to the tax rate this year, if that trend continues citizens' taxes will double in seven years.
Joe Mosca, committee chairman, agreed. "People would be surprised how quickly a person goes from paying $4,000 a year in taxes to $8,000," he said. "It can happen very quickly."
"We've got to know the difference between red and black ink, and a lot of people don't," Doug Swett, the longest serving member of the budget committee, added.
Mike DiGregorio, selectmen's representative to the budget committee, said the budget is rising due to costs the board can't control.
"The cost of special education and health benefits have grown and grown, but we seem to attack what is working like the course offerings, the staff and credits. What legislation has come forward to help school districts with health costs? There are only two providers out there. In this budget, $12 million of it right now is in health and special education."
The budget committee will resume its school review this Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. in the Professional Development Center at the Kennett Middle School.