Lee School Board rejects half-cent sales tax referendum
The Lee County School Board unanimously voted down a referendum Tuesday night that would have placed an increase of one-half cent per dollar school capital outlay sales surtax on the November ballot to allow the public to vote on the issue.
The recommendation was to approve the one-half cent per dollar surtax for a period of five years beginning Jan. 1, 2016. The referendum was to finance the construction of new schools, renovations and additions to existing schools, the upgrading and equipping of schools for technology and the retirement of bond indebtedness. If it passed the district would have had to pay $1.2 million for the election.
The decision came after a lengthy conversation from the board and many comments from the public.
Board member Mary Fischer said looking at the impact of the fallen economy over the last several years, the fact that the district has 20,000 more students than 10 years ago and working with a budget that is $1.3 million instead of $1.5 million, they are doing more with less. She said when talking about the cost of technology and testing, philosophically she agrees that it is a problem.
“It does not stop the 1,500 to 2,000 kids who are moving to the district annually. It does not stop the needs that we have for maintaining the buildings that we currently own and are in relatively good shape now,” Fischer said.
Fischer said she has been talking about the sales tax with her constituents and the community and largely received a positive response once people understand what is involved.
“The other appealing piece is that everybody pays a little bit including our visiting friends during season,” she said.
Board member Pamela LaRiviere said she believes the issue needs to be brought forth to the county.
“Along the way there will be significant cuts that will happen if we don’t have the next five years of benefit of the sales tax,” she said. “There are areas to cut. Yes there are areas of waste.”
LaRiviere went on to say that it will cost the district more money in the long run if they are not able to have that half-cent sales tax go through.
To build three new schools, it will cost $135 million over the next five years.
“If we are not able to get in some other revenue, we are going to be stuck in putting in more schools and adding that to our current debt,” she said. “I believe we need to bring it forward if not this year, but next year.”
Board member Steve Teuber said at a meeting that they had two weeks ago he shared that his position was not for a sales tax unless there was a plan.
“How are we going to get to where we need to be without the sales tax and I don’t mean if it fails we are going to do something else,” he said. “When you don’t have money you have to do something. In my household you got to cut back.”
Teuber said he is not getting the answers he needs to justify anywhere close to a tax. He said he has also weighed in the comments from the people.
“Let’s just put it out there and see what happens. Let the interest groups hash it out. Let the chips fall where they may. Those are our chips. That’s $1.2 million of our chips,” Teuber said.
He said if they want to find out how the community sits, they need to take a poll, do a survey.
“All these tax initiatives that have passed have taken two years to plan and execute and get the word out there,” Teuber said. “I’m not saying we don’t need money because we do.”
He said if anyone wants to have that argument he can show how they can save money right now, but it would be painful.
“This crisis did not happen overnight, but we are in a crisis now,” Teuber said.
Board member Jeanne Dozier said if she cannot afford her expenses at home she does not have the luxury of going out for a referendum.
“I have to tighten my belt and look at ways to cut my own expenses before I can go and borrow money,” she said.
Dozier said she could not support the referendum because she felt the board has not done its due diligence.
Board Chairman Cathleen O’Daniel Morgan said the referendum is about the future of quality education in Lee County. She said she feels very strongly that it is time to ask the public what kind of public education system they want.
“I dearly hoped that we would have the opportunity to go out to the public and say tell us what you want,” she said. “I cannot support a recommendation on this issue that does not have the simple majority from the board, so I will not be supporting this with great regret.”