The Common Sense Campaign (CSC) Tea Party last week held a public meeting with several Baldwin County Public School officials to express various concerns related to the upcoming tax referendum proposed by the school system to fund a $350 million capital building plan.
According to school officials, if Baldwin County residents vote in favor of the referendum March 31, an 8-mill increase in ad valorem tax will give the school system $28.6 million in additional revenue. The system said the funds will be earmarked for building and maintaining facilities to accommodate the rapidly increasing number of students — up 25 percent in 10 years, representing about 6,158 new students.
With $184,900 being the average home value in Baldwin County, taxpayers can expect to see an average increase of $148 per year, which breaks down to $12 per month or 41 cents per day, officials said.
However, Cody Phillips, president of the CSC’s Fairhope and Daphne chapter, opposes the tax increase and presented related concerns to school officials during the public forum. Phillips said the purpose of the meeting was to educate the public, provide an open discussion, highlight the impact of additional taxes on businesses, explore possible alternatives that could offset the proposed additional taxes and ultimately promote openness and transparency.
“We are here for the truth,” he said.
Though Phillips agreed the county needs to provide the best quality education for students, he wondered what additional taxes may be imposed in the future and what services would be cut next to provide for the state’s current $700 million budget deficit. He also noted the recent increase of driver’s license and car tag fees.
Others were curious about the possibility of a “pay-as-you-go” plan, allocations of “rollover” funds and the effects the tax increase would have on residents with fixed incomes, many of which may not even have students in school and feel like they are being punished.
Chief Financial Officer Josh Wilson said the system could use a “pay-as-you-go” plan if it already had enough money in reserve. While $140 million is needed to cover immediate needs and “just to get caught up” over the next three years, the board would utilize pay as you go as much as possible, he said.
“I love pay-as-you-go,” he said. “That is part of the long-term plan.”
Furthermore, Wilson said it costs roughly $20 million per month to operate BCPS, thus a surplus “rollover” or funds from other sources like BP could not adequately fund a capital improvement plan.
Additionally, the school system has seen close to a $12 million — 22 percent —decline in ad valorem revenue and almost $1 billion less in state funding since 2008, he said.
As far as tax increases for farmers, the 8-mill ad valorem increase would reflect a .35-cent increase per acre per year for pasture and crop lands and .43-cents per acre per year for timberland, according to Wilson.
Another major concern expressed during the three-hour meeting was a desire for an itemized, detailed estimate of costs to each district’s proposed projects in the 10-year facilities plan.
“No plan has been put forth by the board of education to account for expenditures beyond the 10-year plan,” Phillips said.
So far, Baldwin County school officials have presented a list of proposed work to include the construction of additions, new schools and even the creation of an entirely new feeder pattern, but they have yet to provided an itemized list of costs.
“We didn’t pull this out of the sky,” Wilson said. “You’ve just got to trust us here.”
BCPS Superintendent Robbie Owen, having grown up in Silverhill, opened up the school system’s presentation by noting every school official present at the forum was a graduate of area high schools.
“We’re all local folks and we understand the concerns,” he said.
Owen went on to say school officials presented the capital plan to every mayor in each of the school system’s respective feeder patterns, maintaining that each mayor was on board with the proposed tax increase.
“In every one of those towns it was ‘yes, we support that,’” he said. “It’s been across the board.”
However, Nancy Grassley, a Baldwin County resident for 10 years, said the time frame is just too long and there is too much uncertainty with approving a property tax increase for that amount of time.
“I don’t understand why it’s so urgent … it’s OK now, but 30 years is a long time,” she told school officials.
To address Grassley’s concern, Owen said interest rates are at an all-time low, and now is the best time to borrow money.
“I don’t agree with it for 30 years,” she said. “Why not a step at a time? I’m positive that next year our home values will go up. There must be another solution or at least half and half.”
Five items will be on the ballot in March, including the renewal of an existing 1-mill tax and two 3-mill taxes in addition to the proposed 8-mill increase that is divided into separate 3-mill and 5-mill taxes. New and reinstated taxes will be applicable through 2045, at which time voters may decide again on whether to renew them.
Baldwin County currently receives 12 mills of ad valorem property tax for education, which falls significantly below the amount collected by other area systems like Mobile County, which receives 29.5 mills within the cities of Mobile and Prichard and 21.5 mills outside city limits.
Currently, BCPS utilizes 100 portables to accommodate a portion of its little more than 30,000 students. In nine years, if the proposed plan does not pass, the system projects having 36,000 students and a need for 447 portables, which would cost about $17 million.
“I don’t think anyone in here thinks the growth is going to stop,” Wilson said. “The secret is out. Everyone is coming to Baldwin County whether we like it or not.”
The school system has been working in conjunction with the Baldwin County Education Coalition’s “Build Baldwin Now” campaign to educate county residents by hosting education summits throughout the community. There are three meetings left before the vote – Feb. 23 at Robertsdale High School, Feb. 24 at Daphne’s Trojan Hall and March 5 at the event center at The Wharf in Orange Beach.