The proposed fiscal 2003 budget reflects a six percent increase from last year’s budget of $78.9 million.
Of the complete proposed budget, which represents all funds and expenditures including food service, federal funding and education special-purpose local-option sales tax (ESPLOST) collections, $56.5 million is earmarked for the system’s general fund, according to Catoosa Schools Assistant Superintendent Jack Sims.
“That’s really a truer picture of the budget than all of the other things that are put in (the total budget) because the $56 million is the only budget that is really affected by local taxes. The other money is monies that come in from other sources.”
Although the proposed budget contains a $1,980,797 shortfall due to lost revenue, several measures, including a millage rate increase of half a mill, will balance the budget, Sims told the Catoosa County Board of Education at its July 2 work session.
“Based on all of the data which I have available to me, I will be recommending a half-mill increase to support this budget,” he said. “Money that is taken out of our budget must be offset by additional revenue if our system is to be fiscally responsible.”
The Catoosa school system is the second largest employer in the county, with a staff of 1,327. The system pays about $1.1 million each year in utility bills and logs about 900,000 miles annually on its bus routes.
Local tax exemptions,state cuts
impact Catoosa’s funding
The Freeport tax exemption, approved by Catoosa voters in a 1998 referendum, was implemented over a four-year period to entice industries to Catoosa County through property tax exemptions, Sims said. This year, as Freeport’s phase-in reaches 100 percent, the Board of Education will lose $24.5 million in revenue from lost property taxes, he said.
Senior citizen homestead exemptions from school property taxes have further impacted the school system, resulting in $488,000 in additional lost revenue this year, Sims said.
“Because of these exemptions, our tax pool is shrinking,” he said.
Drastic funding cuts at the state level and an ever-increasing student population mean Catoosa system administrators are facing tough decisions, including what expenditures are essential and what must be trimmed, Sims said.
House Bill 1187’s mandated reduction in teacher-student class ratios continues to affect the system, as it gains about 250 students each year, the assistant superintendent said. To adequately manage an estimated 10,000 students in Catoosa schools this fall, administrators were forced to hire at least 21 new teachers.
During the General Assembly’s spring 2002 session, the state slashed funding for the county’s Early Intervention Program teachers from $460,000 to $81,695, Sims said. Major state cuts in per-student media funding, staff development and transportation also affected the budget.
“Transportation has been cut by 25 percent (from the state) and I guess my comment on that is we couldn’t cut out of our budget 25 percent of transportation funding because there’s no child that we can leave standing on the roadside,” Sims said. “So those costs have had to be absorbed by local dollars.”
Millage increase offset
by state tax relief grant
“As you look at a budget like this, there is good news,” said Catoosa Tax Commissioner Sandra Self. “All of that (Freeport and senior citizen exemptions) did not come off of the (tax) digest that was in place at the time Freeport was brought in.”
Self said the Governor’s Homestead Tax Relief Grant, which was implemented in 1999, is increasing this year, with the first $25,000 of a home’s fair market value exempt from property taxes.
Although a millage increase of half a mill will increase property taxes, the Governor’s Homestead Tax Relief Grant will provide greater local savings to homeowners, she said.
“This year as the grant increases to $8,000, if there were no increases (in a home’s prop-erty value), each homeowner would receive credit for the homestead exemption and have a bottom-line decrease of about $36.52 off of their tax bill,” she said.
The tax digest lists all properties in the county and is used to set the property tax rate. The system voted last year to keep the property tax rate at 14.75 mills for the second year in a row.
After figuring in the half a mill increase in school property tax for 2003, homeowners in the county would still see a property tax decrease of $20.54, residents of Fort Oglethorpe would see a decrease of $87.34 and Ringgold residents would see a decrease of $45.10, Self said.
To receive the homestead tax relief grant, homeowners “would have to sign for the homestead exemption that they qualify for in the tax commissioner’s office,” Self said.
Once a homeowner signs up for the basic homestead exemption, which has been available from the state for several years, they will automatically receive the tax relief grant, Self said. If a homeowner has signed up for the original homestead exemption in the past, they do not need to sign up again to receive the new tax grant, she said.
Only people who own their own homes are eligible to receive the tax credit; rental and other non-homestead properties would be subject to higher taxes with the millage increase, Self said.
Sims, in presenting the final overview of the proposed fiscal 2003 budget, said that although last-minute adjustments must be made for some school departments, the budget is balanced.
“Many factors have impacted the (fiscal 2003) budget,” he said. “We’ve been building this (budget) since January.”
Sims said the system’s operating reserve, which has hovered around $6 million the last two years, is an important safety net. It will become even more important in the next five years due to cash-flow challenges that lie ahead with the system’s aggressive building program, he said