June 28, 2016 10:45:57 AM
One Columbus Municipal School District Board of Trustees member has a proposition to fund the district's increased budget without raising taxes.
Jason Spears, in a proposal he shared with The Dispatch on Monday, says CMSD can dip into its reserves and two 16th Section land interest funds to pay for a $1 million funding increase for Fiscal Year 2017.
CMSD has requested a budget that's about $1 million more than last year, or an estimated 6.1 mill increase. Millage for CMSD is currently set at 61.59 mills.
That increase would mean a bump in taxes of about $60 per $100,000 in assessed value for residences and $100 per $100,000 for business or rental properties.
Spears, who has served on the board since 2012, thinks the district has another option.
According to his proposal, CMSD had $377,336 split between two 16th Section land interest funds as of May 31. He said the district could, with approval from the Secretary of State's office, withdraw the money to partially fund the budget.
Spears said CMSD could then draw $681,673 from its reserves to fund the rest of the budget increase. He said CMSD had about $4.25 million in reserves as of May 31. The withdrawal would leave about $3.5 million in CMSD's reserve fund. Spears said the state recommends having at least $1.7 million.
CMSD could repay the 16th Section land funds to itself over time, Spears said. The district could recoup a significant amount of the used funds to its reserve, he said, by diverting $75,000 per year in excess bond funds from operations to the reserves for three years. He said the district is expected to regain another $200,000 in taxes owed from a company that declared bankruptcy. Those funds could also be used to replenish reserves.
"There's no reason the school district should have to increase taxes by this ridiculous amount when we already collected, really more taxes than we needed in years past. We're trying to keep our reserves intact and collect more," he said.
Spears says he presented his proposal to CMSD board president Angela Verdell, business administrator Tammie Holmes and board clerk Velma Woodard in a meeting on Friday.
Negotiations with the city
In its initial tax request worksheet provided to tax assessor Greg Andrews on June 20, CMSD asked for a funding increase of roughly $1.4 million, which equates to a millage increase of 7.35 mills.
By the end of last week's discussions between school and city officials, that request had been reduced to about $1 million more than last year.
Spears said it's not clear what was cut from the district's initial request to bring the budget request down $400,000.
"There's honestly no rhyme or reason," Spears said. "They just decided 'Well we're not getting this much so let's reduce it by this.'
"It's kind of gotten to one of those things that's like we've had cuts here, we've had cuts there, so we're just going to make it up with local sources rather than adjusting in the budget for those cuts," Spears later added. "That's been my observation the whole time I've been on the board."
The Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce and Golden Triangle Development LINK will hold an information session on the budget for Chamber members and LINK Trust members at 8 a.m. Thursday at the Mississippi University for Women's Nissan Auditorium. The event will feature Andrews and CMSD Superintendent Phillip Hickman.
CMSD will hold a public hearing on the budget at 5 p.m. Thursday at Brandon Central Services.
Hickman did not answer calls for comment Monday.
Talking about the proposal
Spears said Verdell asked him not to talk about his plan when he asked to bring it up at Thursday's budget hearing.
"She talked about keeping it to ourselves, and I said 'Well, can I go through the numbers at the board meeting?'" Spears said. "She pretty much said we were just there to listen at the board meeting, and we can ask questions before and after the meeting."
Speaking to The Dispatch Monday, Verdell denied she spoke to Spears about his proposal. She also questioned why he was talking about it in public and claimed he didn't have authorization to do so.
"I can't understand why he would be speaking about anything because he has no authority to speak about anything on behalf of the school district or the school board because he is not authorized to do so," she said. "I'm just perplexed completely. This is the first that I've heard of it."
Verdell further said that a board member can't present budget proposals. She said only the superintendent has the authority for that.
Still, Spears says he hopes the board will consider his plan.
"I hope it's what we end up acting on," he said.
Verdell lamented Spears speaking about his proposal, saying the board should work as a team, rather than playing "singles tennis."
"It just sounds like we have a runaway cannon, or so to speak," she said.
Spears also said he attended the June 20 meeting between city and school officials. He said Verdell, who was not present, asked him to leave the meeting. He said he briefly left the meeting, but returned after checking board policy.
"I checked the policy before and I had been to the meetings years ago when I was board president," she said. "It was odd that she was asking me to leave when, number one, there was no reason for me not to be there, and I wasn't violating any policy. She still to this point hasn't given me policy that I have broken."
Verdell said Spears was asked to leave the meeting because he hadn't received authorization from herself or the board to attend. She said he needed that authorization to attend.
"That's the way our policies read and that's the way that we try to operate," she said.
Verdell could not provide CMSD's board policies to The Dispatch by press time, because she was traveling.
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