Residents petition for higher school property taxes
Hoping to drum up support for more property tax revenue for schools, some Kanawha County residents are circulating a petition.
The excess levy provides funds for Kanawha County Schools. Schools already receive funds through a regular property tax, but counties can vote to approve additional funding through more, or excess, property taxes.
Kanawha County Schools is slated to receive about $44.2 million from its current excess levy, Treasurer Harry Reustle said. A legal maximum is set for how much counties can receive from an excess levy. The excess levy rate has consistently gone down in Kanawha County, Reustle said.
The rate is currently at 67.29 percent of what the county could legally charge. If the rate were at the full 100 percent, the school system would have received another $20.9 million this year, Reustle said.
In May, Kanawha County voters elected to cap the amount the school system can receive through the next five-year excess levy. When it takes effect at the start of the 2015 fiscal year, the school system will receive no more than $44.2 million.
The petition being circulated calls for the removal of the cap on the levy and the return of the levy rate to 100 percent.
"The excess levy cap has taken a total of $148,235,000 in possible funding from our schools since 1999," the petition reads.
"Assuming that a taxpayer owns a $100,000 fair market value home and $15,000 in fair market value vehicles, it is estimated that elimination of this cap would cost such taxpayer only an additional $117 annually."
Eric Silkwood created the online version of the petition. An attorney in Charleston, he lives in the Alum Creek area with two children who soon will enter the public school system.
Silkwood became aware of the excess levy when discussions arose concerning overcrowding or redistricting in the Alum Creek and South Hills areas. He admits such changes to the levy could provide the funds to expand John Adams Middle School but said the money would benefit other schools, too.
"This is not money that would just be earmarked for fixing an issue in South Hills," Silkwood said. "This would be money to fix needs in all schools across the county."
He called changing the excess levy an "uphill battle" but thinks the increase in taxes is more than reasonable if it leads to school improvements. He said he hoped the petition would garner some attention so he and others could present it to the school board as evidence that the excess levy might need to be re-examined.
Board President Pete Thaw had not heard of the petition until a reporter told him about it. He was fired up when he learned what it said.
"Put me down as a no vote. I don't want to increase it at all. I'll never vote for an increase in the excess levy, and I'm proud we finally got a cap on it," Thaw said.
Since joining the board in 1998, Thaw has fought to reduce the levy rate and has opposed school bond sales, which also are supported by property taxes. He said he's extremely proud of the cap and thinks this might be the first time people have sought to increase their taxes.
He doesn't think the movement will gain support across the county.
"I imagine the doctors and attorneys will be all for it, but no one else," Thaw said.
The petition mentions the cap on the levy and how it could hurt Kanawha County's chances of receiving funds from the state School Building Authority.
In a meeting earlier in the year, several authority members questioned the county's excess levy cap. The authority ultimately approved additional funding for the new elementary school in the Edgewood area, but several members said it was irresponsible for Kanawha County to cap its levy.
When asked about the authority's opinion of the cap, Thaw said, "That's too bad."
He thinks the petition is about more than fixing schools in South Hills or anywhere else. He said Silkwood probably was "shilling" for somebody. He thought it might be the teachers unions, in a move to get a raise for teachers.
Silkwood or any other community member would be better served working with the board directly, Thaw said. He also asked everyone to be patient with the board's handling of the overcrowding in the South Hills area.
At past school board meetings, community members have suggested raising private funds for an addition at John Adams. Thaw said he was confident local developers would find a way to get the money, and fellow board member Jim Crawford said the board has backed off the idea of redistricting in the area to give fundraising some time.
While Crawford did not want to comment as to whether he would support any changes, he said he didn't want to do anything that would jeopardize the money the school system receives from the levy.
Reustle and Superintendent Ron Duerring have repeatedly said a cap on the levy could present funding challenges for the county.
On Tuesday, Reustle outlined three of those challenges. The excess levy provides flexibility when it comes to paying for operational expenses, like utility bills. Those bills have increased by a couple million dollars in the past few years, and Reustle said it could be difficult to find the money to cover future increases.
Federal funding is also a question mark. The county expects less Medicaid revenue, and less excess levy money will leave a tight budget, Reustle said.
Third, excess levy funds help offset construction and facility improvement costs. Reustle said increasing the energy efficiency of buildings will help, but it's becoming more and more difficult to find ways to reduce costs.
The online petition had 24 unique signatures as of Tuesday afternoon, but Silkwood said several hard copies are circulating.
An election is required to make any changes to an excess levy. Generally, the school system tries to align such elections with other local elections to save money, Crawford said. A special election to change the levy rate would cost the school system more than $300,000, he said.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or david.boucher
@dailymail.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.