Jul 162014

By Naomi Hatch

Members of the Snowflake Unified School District Governing Board adopted the 2014-15 budget, including an adjacent ways tax, July 10 following a public hearing during which some district taxpayers asked them to consider dropping the tax from the proposal.

Del Lewis told the board of the many taxes he pays to Snowflake and Taylor even though he lives outside the towns. He is on a fixed income and suggested that rather than have a tax, the district do as his daughter’s California school did when Proposition 13 was passed, and create booster clubs, and hold bingo games, car washes and candy sales. “Each went to work and created their own revenue source…I’d really like for you to consider other ways to raise the revenue that you’re missing in lieu of the tax increase,” he said.

Terry Hill, who lives in Shumway on Social Security and a small military pension, stated, “Between NPC (Northland Pioneer College) raising taxes, the county voting to raise their taxes and now you’re getting ready to raise taxes up to $12.42 from zero…I would ask that you do like I do and find other ways to cut back instead of increasing taxes again.”

Larry Hildebrand lives in Cedar Hills. He pointed out that grocery prices have increased six percent, dairy products, three percent, and there has been a rise in gasoline prices. “In spite of everything we hear that the economy has turned around, it’s not happening in Navajo County,” he said, noting that people are losing their homes almost on a weekly basis. “Is this really a good time to add a substantial tax increase to people?”

Lois Gonchar has lived in the area for nine years, and her school district and NPC taxes have increased. She suggested the district reach out to the seniors who have a lot of good ideas and can help Snowflake and Taylor with good suggestions.

Superintendent Hollis Merrell also commented on taxes and the tax situation, then noted, “It is certainly something the board and I are aware of; we’ve agonized over it for a few years now.”

Merrell said the board “made some extremely brave decisions to do everything they can to ease the burden of taxes.” A few years ago the board made the decision to turn $800,000 in bond money back to reduce the bond for the citizens, and “were told nobody in the state of Arizona had ever done that before.

“We are one of two school districts that haven’t asked citizens for a budget override,” said Merrell. “We’re doing what we can to control that.”

He also noted that the closing of the paper mill had a direct impact on the district as its assessed value went down by $13 million this year, explaining that when taxes go down the burden shifts.

Merrell said he thought the district had reduced expenditures $4 million over the years, but asked Business Manager Mark Ollerton to check those figures and “we’ve reduced $7 million.” As a result, the district is spending $4 million less annually.

The superintendent explained that the state cut taxes for corporations about 18 years ago in an effort to attract more businesses.

“What happens then is the tax burdens get shifted to local taxpayers, which is something we’ve been very, very concerned about,” said Merrell.

He told those attending the meeting that he thinks Ollerton is one of the most conservative business managers, so they have been in a better position than other schools.

“This next year there may be some extreme decisions we have to make due to lost revenue,” said Merrell. “When we lose budget, we reduce employees, and that compounds the problem.

“We are considered a poor district. Our assessed values are not enough to support our school,” he continued. Property tax makes up 25 to 30 percent of the district’s revenue and state equalization funding brings in 70 to 75 percent of it.

Merrell explained that last year the board decided to give taxpayers a break on the adjacent ways tax, but noted, “It comes down to a decision of also being responsible to the public for the facilities we are required to maintain, to keep them at a level we don’t have to spend more tax money down the road to get them fixed.”

“The district is experiencing right now a serious decline in its enrollment and that enrollment is a function to how much the school has to educate students,” said Ollerton, explaining that they are looking at a $424,000 decrease in the general budget limit, so district officials have chosen to use reserves to balance the budget.

Ollerton said that the district used to receive $500,000 in soft capital funding that would go into the classroom for computers, books and instructional aids, but when the economic downturn began, the state cut that funding. State officials also cut the physical facilities building renewal fund, which was $400,000 to $500,000.

The business manager further explained that in the budget formula this year, they were able to budget $1.1 million in district additional assistance or capital money, but it is estimated that the state will take away $671,000 of that money to balance its budget.

“That’s the impact that we’re talking about, and we’re down about $1 million next year, said Ollerton. “What’s impacting all of us personally, too, is the area and the declining assessed valuation. We’re down to where it was in 2007 assessed value, affecting our tax rates, thus pushing our tax rates up.”

He explained that the additional levy for adjacent ways is a tax that will raise funds to address areas that are adjacent to school property and help with the ingress/egress for people coming on to the school property. “These funds are going to be raised to help alleviate the flooding situation at the high school,” said Ollerton.

“You won’t find any Race to the Top money,” said Merrell. “We, as a district, chose not to take that money from the State of Arizona because it came with strings attached. We were one of the very few districts that chose not to take that money.”

Lewis asked if there was a committee that thinks out of the box, explaining that he hosted a foreign student at one time who said in their country they did all their cleaning and so forth.

Merrell responded that they have reduced the custodial staff to one at each site, so teachers and classes are helping already. He further noted that since 2008, he has had meetings with all the supervisors in this area, supervisors in the state and other groups to talk about how to deal with this.

“We do a lot of fundraisers, a lot of our groups do that to support their activity, said Merrell, noting that they have to balance fundraisers to not hurt the local businesses.

“Our district is a really good example of doing more with less,” said the superintendent.

Merrell and Board President John Stewart thanked the citizens who were present for being kind and professional, and keeping the district informed about all citizens. “We truly want to consider all and encourage anyone to come to the district and meet with us. We would like to see our community be successful,” said Merrell.

The public hearing was closed and Stewart called for a motion. Board member Cory Johnson moved to approve the 2014-15 expenditure budget as presented. The motion passed.

In other action, the board approved Dan Rowls as provider of speech therapist/assistive technology services for the 2014-15 school year.

The district’s dual enrollment agreement with Northland Pioneer College was approved.

“This is extremely beneficial for our students,” said Merrell.

The board also approved an agreement with the Arizona Department of Education for the permanent food service program.