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Board seeks new property tax for schools, library

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After successfully pitching tax relief to county voters last year, the Kanawha County school board is poised to go back to the well.   

The board may ask voters - in a special November election -- to approve a new property tax beyond its regular and excess levies.

The new tax would raise $21 million in fiscal year 2014-15 for the school system and $3 million for the public library.

If approved, the new five-year levy would generate even more each year over the next four years. By 2018-19, it is projected to generate a total of $28 million - with $3.7 million going to the library.

In a special session Monday, the board approved the proposal in principle on a 4-1 vote, with Board President Pete Thaw against, but will take final action when details are worked out.

The idea is to "uncap" the board's excess levy, which under the state constitution can generate up to 100 percent of its regular levy. In recent years the board has proposed excess levies with caps as a strategy for finding favor with county voters.

The board's action is rooted in two factors - a court ruling that threatened library funding and the board's own panic over the projected deficits stemming from the capped levy approved by voters last year.

On the November ballot will be one box. Voters can choose to support the extra money for the school system and the restored funding for the library, or against both.

Over five years, the new tax would raise more than $130 million for the school and library systems.

For a person with a $100,000 home and $15,000 in vehicles, that's a tax increase of around $125 annually.

Right now, the school system will reap only around 65 percent of the money it is legally allowed to collect from citizens with an excess levy. That's because the school board voted last year to cap the amount of money the county can receive from the tax at around $44.2 million.

With the new tax, the board decided to ask the voters to fund the school system up to the full legal limit -- minus the 5 percent that would benefit the library.

Board treasurer Harry Reustle said there was some discussion of capping the levy at a percentage of the legal limit, but officials eventually decided to ask the voters for the full 35 percent.

"The fiscally prudent thing for some of us seemed to be that we've got to be able to squeeze some dollars out somewhere," said board member Robin Rector.

"We have holes in our budget we can't fill, so the public is going to have to pay for that one way or the other ... One way is that we have them pay for extracurricular activities or a lot of things that we don't have to charge for now, and in my mind a fair way to share that is going after an excess levy."

Thaw, who has generally been opposed to the idea of another excess levy, called the tax increase "massive." But he was overruled by the rest of the board, who are willing to take the tax to voters for approval. 

The decision to go with a joint tax to benefit both entities, instead of just sharing one ballot but using it to let the public vote on two taxes, was more contentious.

"There are many people, I would guess a significant number of people, who would want to vote for one and not the other. You're not going to have everyone want to vote for both or not vote for both," Thaw said.

"I think for fairness to the voter that it can't put them together. People ought to be able to vote one way or the other on either. We owe the voters some fairness here."

The rest of the board disagreed. The final vote was 4-to-1 to lump the two taxes together on the ballot. The library's board of directors has already indicated its preference for such a ballot.

"The truth to the public, the honesty part, comes in that we're going to really tell them where the money is going," board member Robin Rector said.

The two public entities have been working toward an agreeable way to dissolve a decades long funding relationship between them for months.

That's after a February state Supreme Court decision found a 1958 law forcing the school system to help fund Kanawha County Public Libraries unconstitutional, freeing the school system from a relationship it felt was unfair, but leaving the library scrambling to come up with nearly $3 million -- 40 percent of its operating budget.

The school system has been subjected to a public backlash in the months since, and calls for the school system to continue funding the library voluntarily.

In April, the school board agreed to help support the library for another year, giving the library system nearly $2 million in the next fiscal year -- less than they would have contributed before the Supreme Court decision but enough to help the library stay afloat while officials work through funding issues.

The board also agreed to let the library take a property tax to the voters under the school system's umbrella (legally, the school system can seek approval for an excess levy from voters, but the library can only do so with their help).

But Kanawha County schools are facing their own financial issues -- a projected $4.5 million deficit in 2014 that is at least partially the result of the board's decision last year to put a flat cap on the amount of money the school system can receive from its property tax in the name of tax relief for the public.

School board members have been discussing the possibility of taking another property tax to the voters for approval, effectively lifting that cap, but Monday's vote is the first official action on the matter. The special election is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 9.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.

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