published Wednesday, June 19th, 2013

Catoosa, Dade schools plan tax rise

Property tax increases are planned at two Northwest Georgia school districts where officials say they're squeezed both by cuts in state funding and a local tax base that shrank during the Great Recession.

Catoosa and Dade counties' school districts propose to raise their millage rates. Each district will hold three public hearings, then their school boards are expected to vote on the hikes in August. The proposed millage increases won't go before voters.

"We have felt the pain from austerity reductions and increasing health care costs," Catoosa County Schools spokeswoman Marissa Brower said.

Catoosa is considering a 1.95-mill increase to its current millage rate of 16.763. That would bring the total millage rate to 18.713 -- still shy of the 20-mill maximum allowed in Georgia.

The district hasn't increased its millage rate since 2007, Brower said.

"We have been able to avoid a millage rate increase for this long by very careful budgeting," she said.

Since 2003, Catoosa County Schools has lost $48.8 million in state funding, Brower said. Most of that -- $39 million -- is from state "austerity" cuts that increased sharply in 2008, she said.

"The austerity reductions have really been a big hurt," Brower said.

The state also is requiring Catoosa County Schools to spend more than $1 million next year on health insurance, Brower said, and an additional $421,000 toward employees' retirement.

"Those are not [local] choices," Brower said.

A mill, which is $1 in taxes per $1,000 of a property's taxable value, isn't worth as much as it used to be in Catoosa County. During the 2010-11 school year, one mill generated $1.5 million for the school district, Brower said. In 2011-12, a mill dropped in value, generating $1.48 million, she said.

The school district had the opportunity then, she said, to up the millage rate to stay even -- but it declined.

"We didn't take that. We stayed with the same millage rate, which means we brought in less income," Brower said.

Dade ups millage; Walker cuts jobs

Dade County Schools is considering a 1.25 mill increase to the current millage rate of 13.92 to bring the total rate to 15.17 mills, Superintendent Shawn Tobin said.

"We're still at the bottom," Tobin said, because that new millage rate would rank Dade at 117 out of Georgia's 174 school districts.

He said the district has to shoulder a $1.5 million austerity cut next year.

"If I didn't have that, I'd have a balanced budget, and I'd be hiring people," Tobin said.

Walker County Schools won't increase its property tax rate of 17.404 mills, Superintendent Damon Raines said.

But the district has eliminated 28 certified teaching positions, Raines said, along with 24 noncertified teaching positions, which include paraprofessionals.

"We made cuts back in May and some additional cuts more recently," he said.

This is the second year in a row that Walker County Schools has cut jobs, Raines said.

The district hasn't increased the millage rate since 2004, he said, but it's facing a $6.8 million austerity reduction next year.

If the austerity cuts continue, the district has little choice between cutting jobs or raising the millage rate.

"You're really limited to where you can look," Raines said.

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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