Law might force schools to borrow

Columbia County school officials might consider taking out a loan to keep the school system financially afloat.

Officials are worried that a possible delay in collecting tax revenues might necessitate borrowing as much as $20 million to continue paying personnel and bills.

Typically, the system receives the bulk of its local tax revenues in November and December, but a new state law freezing property tax assessments might throw the time frame out of whack.

Superintendent Charles Nagle told the school board Tuesday that the county Tax Assessor's Office is awaiting a decision by state Attorney General Thurbert Baker on the legality of the new law. Until his decision is made, the office cannot send out property value assessment notices.

Should Mr. Baker decide the law is valid, the Tax Assessor's Office will have to upgrade its software to account for the reassessment freeze, further delaying the mailing of assessments.

"We're sitting in limbo because we cannot do anything until that's been resolved," Mr. Nagle said.

A phone message left Thursday afternoon for Debbie Robertson, the chief appraiser with the assessor's office, was not immediately returned.

Schools aren't the only ones anxiously awaiting Mr. Baker's decision.

"Our office is not on schedule with sending out tax bills because the Tax Assessor's Office has not mailed out the tax assessment notices yet," said Tina Laidig, a financial specialist with the Tax Commissioner's Office. "They're usually mailed out in May. That's putting everything behind."

Mr. Nagle said he believes it might be August before Mr. Baker makes a decision.

Once the assessment notices are mailed, the Tax Commissioner's Office must wait 45 days -- the time allotted for homeowners to appeal the assessment -- before sending out tax bills. The law allows property owners 60 days to pay the bill.

"Nov. 15 has always been our due date," Ms. Laidig said. "We have no idea at this point when they will be mailed."

Why can't the school board dip into its $26 million reserve fund rather than take out a loan?

During the latter half of the year, when tax payments from the state and county are typically low, school officials dip into the reserve with the expectation that they'll replenish it with the large November and December payments.

Last year, the school system collected more than $100 million in tax revenues during those months.

With the reserve fund already low and the tax payments delayed, the board might have no choice but to seek a loan.

"All this could put us about two months behind," Mr. Nagle said. "Here again, it's an instance of something the state has done that has put the local systems at a disadvantage."

Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 115, or donnie.fetter@augustachronicle.com.