Cuts could boost taxes in Columbia County

Columbia County school officials expect to lose about $4.5 million in state funding after the latest round of budget cuts, and several said Wednesday they wouldn't rule out a county tax increase.

On Tuesday, Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered a 3 percent funding cut for public schools and said he is eliminating funding equivalent to three unpaid furlough days for teachers. Those cuts and others are needed to make up a $900 million shortfall in state revenues, he said, and local schools are weighing their options.

"I don't think anything is off the table yet," said school trustee Mike Sleeper.

"We're not going to rule anything out as a possibility right now, but I'm hoping we won't raise the millage," board member Roxanne Whitaker said.

Board Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco said Wednesday that she would not support a property tax increase.

Board member Mildred Blackburn said she didn't know what she would do, and trustee Wayne Bridges did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment.

IN RICHMOND COUNTY there are even fewer options. Last week school board members locked themselves into a decision not to raise taxes, aware the governor might make the decision he made this week.

By setting the tentative millage at the same level as last year, the board is now unable to raise the rate to offset the new cuts. It can only lower the rate or keep it at the same level when it meets next week for a final millage adoption.

"I don't regret what I did," board Vice President Alex Howard said Wednesday.

Mr. Howard said it was tough voting against a tax increase, but he stands by it, knowing that property owners have seen taxes increase considerably over the past few years and that the economy is already stretching families' finances thin.

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden presented the board with five options. In a 5-4 vote, the board approved keeping the millage the same, the lowest rate of the five scenarios presented. If the board raised taxes to the cap, it would have generated about $3.4 million in additional tax revenue and cost an extra $39.13 on a $100,000 house.

An initial vote last week failed 4-5 to raise taxes $8.93 on a $100,000 home. That would have balanced the budget at the time.

"I couldn't go beyond that as far as asking for more," board member Helen Minchew said of her decision not to raise taxes. "Even if we went to the cap, that wasn't enough."

Mrs. Minchew said she couldn't in good conscience vote for higher taxes when everyone is struggling to make ends meet.

"You can't just hit people for more when they're down," she said. "There just isn't enough money."

COLUMBIA COUNTY SUPERINTENDENT Charles Nagle said he believes he can find other means to compensate for the state cuts without resorting to raising taxes.

Mr. Nagle said he believes he and his staff can cut as much as $1.5 million from the current budget and recover the remainder of the $3 million shortfall by dipping into the school system's reserve fund of about $26 million, though he is reluctant to do so.

"You can't keep taking out of savings to make ends meet, but that's better than raising taxes at this point," he said.

Another priority for the superintendent is resetting the school calendar prior to the Aug. 10 start date to include teacher furloughs. By eliminating pre-planning days and staff development days from the school calender, Mr. Nagle said the school system can meet the furlough requirement without interrupting instructional time.

Already school officials have eliminated more than 100 positions to save money. Nearly 70 teaching and paraprofessional positions were cut.

Mr. Nagle said he will present options for budget cuts and a new school calender to the board at a Tuesday meeting.

Staff writer Greg Gelpi contributed to this story.

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