AIKEN -- The price of a full tank of premium gasoline -- that's how much more Aiken County residents could pay in taxes in 1997.
Thanks to the bang of the gavel at Tuesday night's school board meeting, trustees bit the bullet and voted 7-1 in favor of a proposal to raise taxes 4.2 mills.
Each mill is valued at $338,454, sending property tax rates up 4.7 percent. For property valued at $100,000, taxes would rise by $16.80. And to a car owner whose automobile has been assessed at $10,000, that translates into a $4.41 increase. That translates into a little more than $21, or about 42 soft drinks at 50 cents each or seven fast-food meals at $3 each.
Board member Brent Rankin was the lone opponent, not because he disagreed with the budget, but because he wanted to see money added to reduce the pupil-to-teacher ratio at the middle school and high school levels and to fund additional teachers and aides in the special-education department.
The preliminary $96 million budget reduces the pupil-to-teacher ratio in third grades by 20-to-1, or one fewer pupil; pays for four teachers for the English as a Second Language program; and keeps $3.7 million in the contingency fund. Board members will finalize the budget in June.
But the proposal does nothing to lift Aiken County out of its financial cellar, warned board member Art Hadden. Aiken is dead last in per-pupil spending among South Carolina's 91 public school districts, yet leads the state in the number of taxpayers with annual incomes greater than $25,000.
Just to climb to 90th place, trustees would have to raise taxes another eight mills.
In a related move, the board voted 7-1 to ask the Aiken County Legislative Delegation for permission to raise the millage ceiling to 110 mills. Currently, the cap is 94 mills, and the district has been operating under the cap the last three years.
Board member Sheran Proctor voted against the motion. Trustees are scheduled to meet with the delegation May 4.
Rep. Scott Beck, R-North Augusta, said he may have supported a two- to three-mill increase, but to ask for a bold 15 percent increase was "ludicrous."
"People don't mind paying for education, but they want to see results," he said. "If we really want to be a leader, we've got to have a plan, then we can throw some money into the pot. Otherwise we're putting the cart before the horse, which we've done too many times before."
To that end, trustees unanimously approved a motion by Mr. Rankin to ask for assistance from the lawmakers to develop a five-year plan to get the county off the bottom in many areas and to provide other facility and educational needs that may be jointly identified.
"I'm all for mapping a five-year plan, then using a local referendum to fund it," Mr. Beck said. "I think that's truly the only way to involve the public."