Tax hike on table for Columbia County schools

A tax increase likely will be on the table when Columbia County’s school board meets next week.

Superintendent Charles Nagle painted a gloomy scene Tuesday during a presentation of next school year’s budget, telling board members that years of state funding cuts, state-mandated health insurance increases and rising enrollments have left few options for balancing next year’s $178 million budget.

“This is the sixth budget I’ve presented, and it’s probably the worst,” Nagle said.

With a series of charts and graphs, Nagle showed how state funding has risen just 2 percent in the past 12 years, while student enrollment in Columbia County has risen 29 percent to the current 24,400 – with more than 400 new students expected next year.

For the 2013-14 budget, the state is hitting the county with a combination of funding cuts and mandated health insurance increases that, after the system dips into its reserves, still leaves a gap of nearly $5 million, Nagle said.

“Basically, we’re looking at a $4.6 million deficit,” he said. “That’s the flavor of the day.”

That deficit would be far worse if the system hadn’t raised the tax rate by a half-mill three years ago, he said, hinting that when the board meets again Tuesday after a few days of “digesting” the budget files that he’ll likely propose a one-mill tax increase.

That would produce about $4 million in additional revenue at a cost to taxpayers of about $50 per year per $100,000 in home value, Nagle said.

With a millage rate of 17.59 mills, a one-mill increase would still leave the school system just more than a mill under the state cap of 20 mills – a ceiling that many systems already have hit.

“We’re one of the few counties that’s still under 20 mills,” Nagle said. “We’re one of the few counties that still has a full calendar” without reducing the number of days of instruction below 180.

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