For the third year in a row, Lowndes County supervisors voted Thursday to underfund the Lowndes County School District’s local ad valorem tax request, this time by about $1.3 million.
Even with this reduction, county taxes will increase by 3.57 mills in the next fiscal year, with 1.57 mills of the increase coming from the school district.
The decision at the Board of Supervisors meeting, where it also approved the county’s budget for fiscal year 2023, is the latest in a series of disputes between the county and the school district over funding – a matter that has been the subject of litigation since 2020.
This year, the LCSD requested $22,087,302 to fund its operations, a slight increase from the $21.3 million requested last year. He also requested $7,395,917 for debt service.
Supervisors have argued that the district’s demand for operations is greater than the law allows.
“My recommendation is that we find the operational portion of their budget to be outside of the 7% allowed by law,” Chairman Trip Hairston said. “I propose that we adopt a 6.99% increase, which is authorized by law.”
State law allows the district to request an increase of up to 4% over the previous year’s demand for operations. An increase of more than 4%, but less than 7%, could trigger a citizens’ referendum. An increase of more than 7% requires a direct referendum.
Hairston offered to reduce the district’s demand and was seconded by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks. The motion carried 4-1, with District 1 Supervisor Harry Sanders voting no.
The application, as approved, was based on a value per mill of $546,000. It included $20.6 million, or 37.9 mills, for operations; $3.9 million, or 7.19 mills, for general bonds; $1.6 million, or 3 mills, for a 3 mill capital improvement note; and $1.8 million, or 3.35 mills, in missing tickets accrued over the previous two years, supervisors underfunded the LCSD claim.
Sanders made it clear that he was not at all in favor of approving a school district tax increase, calling the idea “ridiculous.”
“They don’t need the money,” Sanders said. “They have to keep the mileage exactly where it is right now, or they have to reduce their mileage and use some of that reserve that they have. … I see no reason for us to raise taxes on all those taxpayers over there when they don’t need the money.
Brooks said it wasn’t the county fight.
“This fight is not our fight,” Brooks said. “This is the fight of the taxpayers. If they get to a point where they say, “Damn, you have all this money and you’re raising our taxes. But until then, we can’t do anything.
The cut was the latest move in a disagreement over how taxes are calculated that dates back to 2020, when the LCSD sued supervisors for not fully funding its tax claim. LCSD had claimed approximately $50 million in appraised value added as new property, which does not count towards its 4% increase for operations.
LCSD “new property” claims arise from compensation agreements that have expired. These agreements allow industries that invest more than $60 million to pay one-third of its assessed value for 10 years. In 2020-21, several stand-in-lieu arrangements expired, and the district claimed it could claim this as new property because it had never appeared on the tax rolls.
Chancery Court Judge Rodney Faver agreed with the district, but supervisors appealed the decision and continued to reduce tax claims. As a result, the school district goes into debt to fill in the gaps in its application.
Lowndes County School District Superintendent Sam Allison said he looks forward to the resolution of the lawsuit.
“We hope the Supreme Court will rule on how replacement properties can be counted when they come off,” he said. “I feel like (Faver’s) decision was correct, and we’ll just have to wait.”
A decision on the lawsuit is not expected until next year.
Brian Jones is the local government reporter for Columbus and Lowndes County.
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