Thursday, April 7, 2005

Shortage of state funds concerns county

Staff Writer

Marshall County supervisors spent a few days in Jackson two weeks ago to let state legislators and senators know about funding needs, said Larry Hall, county administrator and road manager.

They visited with Sen. Ralph Doxey and with Representatives Jack Gadd, Kelvin Buck and Tommy Woods and other elected officials, he said, to discuss funding for education, local reimbursement from the state of the county’s share of the homestead exemption tax collection and state aid road and bridge funding.

Senate Bill 3068 deals with proposed homestead reimbursement legislation.

“We were concerned with adequate funds to fully reimburse the county for the statutory amount of homestead taxes,” Hall said. “And if the state does not adequately fund education, local tax authority will be called on to make up the difference. It would be a direct hit on the taxpaying citizens of the county.”

He said the state aid funding “is kind of an easy target” for state elected officials to raid.

“We don’t want them fooling with our road money,” Hall said.

Still being bantered about in the legislature is the idea to tax cigarettes either 50 cents or $1 a pack, Hall said. A $1 per pack tax on cigarettes would bring in $200 million in revenue to the state coffers, he said.

Marshall County Tax Assessor Ronnie Johnson explained the homestead reimbursement to the counties from the state and how that affects the county’s and school district’s funding.

The state legislature is supposed to reimburse the county $100 for each homestead. Fifty dollars goes to the county’s budget and $50 to the school districts, he said.

But in tight budget years such as the last three years, the state only reimbursed about $90 per homestead, he said.

The county has about 8,000 individual properties homesteaded, he said, and would be reimbursed $400,000 to the county and $400,000 to the schools under normal circumstances. But with only 80 percent reimbursement, the county loses about $40,000 of that reimbursement and the school district also loses that amount.

What that means, Johnson said, is that when the county is also in a tight budget situation, the $40,000 it does not get reimbursed from the state is sorely missed.

Figures provided by Chancery Clerk Chuck Thomas show that homestead reimbursements to the school district totalled $253,204 in year 2003 and $263,267 in year 2004. That means that the county school district received $516,471 in homestead reimbursement funds over the last two years, and likewise the county.

“The money has got to come from somewhere and it is all going to come from the taxpayer,” he said. “When the state or federal government mandates and does not fund programs like the No Child Left Behind Act and the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, the money has to come from the county taxpayers.”

Johnson said that if the county runs out of money before a fiscal year budget ended, it would have to borrow money to operate on from a bank and the county would have to increase the millage rate to pay the debt off.

He said the budget crisis the state is in now was caused by unanticipated shortfalls in state revenues in recent years.

Thomas said he is aware of the board of supervisors’ concern about possible shortfalls in state funding next year to counties.

He assured that the county is not facing a financial crisis now - that expenditures out of this year’s budget are on target.

“Education is the main thing,” he said. “It is going to hit us hard if the state does not fund the Mississippi Adequate Education Program. It is my observation that the supervisors don’t want to raise taxes. So, if it happens, we will likely have to cut back our budget somewhere else.”

Thomas explained that the school district sends the supervisors a budget request and that they have to set the millage rate for the school district’s portion of the ad valorem tax to bring in the requested school funds.

Marshall County Supervisor George Zinn III said he strongly opposes the counties having to shoulder the cost of the MAEP, a program mandated by the state, but not fully funded by the state for teacher pay raises.

He favors taxing at the state level, a cigarette or tobacco tax for example, to pay for MAEP, rather than passing the buck to the counties.

“My position is the state should consider some tax at the state level rather than forcing the counties to come up with that money,” he said. “A lot of counties are poor and it will be hard for them to come up with it.”

He said he thinks a tax spread out over the entire state would be “a less of a hit” rather than handing the bills down to the local level.

Zinn said he considers Marshall a poor county, although there may be many counties that are poorer. He said poorer counties would be forced to make cuts in services to meet MAEP funding, if the state passes the teacher pay raise along to the local governments.

“Keep in mind, the state had already mandated a pay raise (for teachers) and they should not try to back out of this responsibility now,” Zinn said.

He expressed appreciation for Rep. Kelvin Buck and state legislators who recognized Marshall County officials from the floor of the house.

County school district superintendent Don Randolph said the eight percent state-mandated pay raise costs the district about $680,000 annually. That includes an eight percent pay raise, assistant teacher raises, insurance and retirement benefits, he said.

He said the district now assesses 35.54 mills and the ad valorem tax for schools can be raised to 55 mills, but would require a referendum. With debt service added, the figure for the ad valorem school tax comes to 44.5 mills, Randolph said.

Without a referendum the district could raise the revenue it gets locally by seven percent and generate about $180,000, he said.

Randolph said the ad valorem tax is only a small percentage of what the districts get from Jackson, and without the full funding of MAEP for fiscal year 2006 by the legislature, the school will be in a financial crisis.

“This was a five-year plan and MAEP has never been fully funded,” he said. “But the state has been in a budget crunch for two years in a row.”

He said the district has spent nearly $1.5 million over the last two years for the pay raise. This district has managed to make its budget work by doing little or no preventive maintenance. The budget for textbooks has also come up short, he said.

And the bus fleet must be maintained with replacement buses more frequently than it has. Fuel costs are rising which will add more financial pressure if that continues, Randolph said.

“Nothing has been bought and primarily just the bills have been paid,” he said. “Anything we’ve done has been for emergencies.” He cited leaking roof repairs as examples of emergency expenditures the district has made.

Randolph said if the state forces the local districts to finance MAEP the millage rate will have to be raised.

The overall mill rate for the county and school district is currently set at 119.5 mills.

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