The Marion County Board of Supervisors held a public hearing on Sept. 13 for citizens to express their concerns on the county's budget for this year, which led to a spirited debate.
The audience included more than 15 concerned citizens, who were completely focused on the budget request of the Marion County School Board and the Board of Supervisors' 3-2 vote to give the school district a 0.74 mills, or approximately $65,000 increase for the year.
CPA Charlie Prince explained the situation to those in attendance saying that the 0.74 increase in millage was to fund the shortfall in the previous budget of the school district.
"When the school district asks for $1, and it only get 94 cents, it has a right to take out a loan to pay the difference," Prince said.
County Attorney Drew Foxworth told the group that the board could not assess more than the 0.74 mills that it advertised in the public notice.
"Is anybody else in this room thinking they already pay enough taxes? I think the school board needs to do just like the taxpayers have to do and tighten their belt. Find areas you can do without or things you can get rid of that's not being utilized," Michael White said. "I didn't see anything in this article (newspaper) about any suggestions about cutting corners or cutting back or changing things so the school board does not require as much money to survive. They need to be told the taxpayers are not a source of unending revenue for every entity that needs our tax money. They need to live on a budget just like we do."
White also stated he had issues with buying tickets for his granddaughter's archery match because he did not have a smart phone and could not buy tickets at the door with cash. He said this is just one example of the callous attitude toward taxpayers that he cannot attend the archery meet without a smart phone.
Betty Oglesbee asked what loan it is that the school district is behind on and said it needs to quit hiring consultants.
"That costs money. They did it for the consolidation. Then they did it for a consultant to help them work out the budget. Why couldn't they get Mr. Prince? He is hired by the county. They didn't need to hire all these people. There's no telling how much that has cost," Oglesbee said.
Prince explained that the tax revenue was not as high as expected so the district had to borrow the money to make up the difference.
Oglesbee asked how much a mill is worth and was told by Prince that the school board mill is worth about $85,000, and the county mill is worth about $150,000.
Prince told Oglesbee that the increase of 0.74 mills is not very much and that the county would be funded at the same amount as last year. He had to reiterate that the school would be funded at the same amount as last year except for the 0.74 mills.
"So, you all passed the small amount instead of the big amount they were wanting?" Oglesbee asked.
The school board requested a 6.48-mill increase, but the supervisors voted to only advertise for 0.74 mills.
"The school board made a budget request to the supervisors that they fund the school board's request. In order to do that, that would have meant assessing a (6.48-mill) increase. This board chose to do just the 0.74 mills," Foxworth said. "We can't ask for more than we published."
Pam Morgan said she cut timber on her land last year to pay her taxes and she doesn't know what she will do this year because she does not have any more timber left.
"Apparently, Mr. Day doesn't get The Columbian-Progress or he would have seen all the people that were not able to pay their taxes. There's a lot of elderly people sitting right in here that are struggling to pay their taxes," Morgan said. "And, Mr. Day, his goal is to consolidate the schools. But let me tell you what would happen if we were to consolidate these two schools. People are going to flee from West Marion. Enrollment is going to drop. People will home school. They will move to Sumrall. They will move to Oak Grove. If he thinks enrollment is low now, he ain't seen nothing yet. Mr. Day don't know nothing about Marion County. Nothing. He better take a good, long, hard look at the people in Marion County and who they are."
Casey Bedwell said he agreed with all that had been said before he spoke. He asked District 4 Supervisor Raymon Rowell why he voted to fund this.
"I did not vote to fund this. They voted to fund the .74. I voted against it. The law says the Board of Supervisors shall fund the school district. It is a statute on the law books that says so," Rowell said. "A vote on the more than 6 mills never came up."
Foxworth reiterated there was never a motion to fund the 6.48-mill increase requested by the school district. The only motion made was to assess the additional millage needed to cover the shortfall and that is what passed 3-2.
White then asked if the full increase was eventually going to happen anyway.
District 1 Supervisor Eugene Green said it would not happen this year and that people need to contact their legislators to get the law changed.
"Sooner or later, it's going to have to come because the law says you have to," Green said.
Stephanie Buhrer said she understands the board talking around the issue but that at some point, the money will have to be given to the schools.
Prince said that at the end of the school year, the school district holds a public hearing about their budget, and any problems with the school budget needs to be addressed at that meeting. Buhrer said that Day did not want to hear what they had to say at that meeting.
"Once you get to this meeting, we are only talking about levying taxes," Prince said. "The board will vote to fund the school district the same amount of dollars as the current year. The school district will legally have an obligation, if they do not collect the taxes they requested, they can do a shortfall note that lets them borrow those dollars. If they choose to do that then they will return to this board and this board will have to fund that shortfall over a three-year period of time."
Buhrer said this is us going into a hole over and over if Day is not made to stop his spending and cut his budget.
"A couple of salaries here and there in the district office. If he could cut some of the new people he has brought into central office and positions that weren't there before, we would not have a shortfall next year," Buhrer said. "We are having to employ more people to deal with less students. I worked for the Marion County School District for 19 years. I've been there and done that and taught kids at all the schools and I put my heart into it the whole time I was there. If we are just looking at cutting six or seven salaries, that's something he needs to do."
There was much disagreement as to whether the county has had an assistant superintendent in the past. One group said there has never been one, and the other group said the district has always had one. The dispute appears to be in the title of the position.
Helmon Johnson said that the district has what it needs in the central office. He asked if everyone had been to Sumrall or Oak Grove to see their setups.
"I'm here to support the budget increase. You don't get anywhere if you don't have good education in your county. Look at the school districts around us. They are improving their school because they know it's not only for education, but it's also about economic development. We are always grumbling about not wanting to pay taxes, but yet you want your garbage picked up and you want your law enforcement people paid. You want all of the things that go along with service in the county, but you don't want to pay for it," Johnson said. "The Marion County School District is in dire need because we have been neglecting it over the years. There have been budgets that have come in here over the years where the schools have backed off and said, 'Well, we won't take a certain amount of money.' But by law, they are due a certain amount, but they have been taking less than that.
“All he is asking for is that the taxes be like they should have been to support our school system. As far as Mr. Day goes, all I can see is he is doing a fantastic job. He is modeling his administration after systems that are successful. We want adequate facilities at our schools. As far as academics go, that has improved. You may be surprised. I don't mind paying more to take care of our children. Somebody has to speak up for them."
Johnson said everyone should check out the unpaid tax list now and that most people have gone and paid them.
Board President Calvin Newsom asked Foxworth to explain the law that says the board shall fund the school district's request. Foxworth said that when the school district requests funding, the Board of Supervisors really has no discretion over it. The law says that you shall assess what they ask for. It's really a school tax that comes through the Board of Supervisors, and the supervisors have no control over it.
White said he does not have a problem paying his taxes but does have a problem with everyone constantly asking for more and more. He pointed out that our salaries don't go up. He asked who the school board is accountable to. He was told the school board members are elected.
Topenaka Bridges, who attended East Marion and taught at West Marion, said this is all actually about race.
"The problem isn’t a funding issue. It's a black/white thing, bottom line. We need to stop this and start thinking about each other. The children are our future. Stop making excuses. Excuses are like a behind, everybody got one," she said. "We need to take this today and dissolve it because it's obvious what's been going on and what's been said. My name is in the paper because I didn't pay my taxes. Not because I can't. I just haven't. We make excuses for anything we don't want to do. We worry about the wrong thing. We love our children. We love God but can't help our fellow man. There's something wrong with what we are doing. Always bickering.
“Everybody has their fingers pointed at Michael Day. At least he cares. He's been referred to as a n----r lover. We didn't say anything when we had the
n----r haters. I'm tired of this. We have taken this to the limit. We need to sit down and think about what we are doing and what we are not doing, How can you say you serve a God you have never seen but you hate your fellow man?"
Jerry Williams likened the complaints of taxes to the fact that everybody will go to McDonald's and buy a combo with a half-cooked burger and limp fries for $10.70, but when it comes to the schools, the community doesn't want to fund something good.
The meeting was adjourned.
"I would like to thank all those who attended the public hearing on Sept. 13, and those who expressed their concerns," Newsom said.
The Board of Supervisors then met on Sept. 15 and voted to pass the budget as presented on Sept. 13.
Green said the board is not against education, but they have to look out for the taxpayers.
"Every department, if they get 20 mills for example, they think that is their money from then on. It's not guaranteed. We are all here to look out for the taxpayers. When the school district says we shorted them, we didn't. It just took fewer mills to make that same amount of money. If we don't do our job, we aren't treating the people right. When belts have to be tightened, everybody's has to tighten," Green said.
District 3 Supervisor Tony Morgan said he could not vote for more money after the taxpayers voted down the bond issue.
"They had a special election on the bond, and the people voted it down because they did not want higher taxes. They (the school district) should have taken the $20,000 they spent on the vote and put it on the schools," he said. "There are a lot of ways they could save money to go to children's education and not $15 million on sports. And cut some of the higher paid people in the school board office that they just hired. They are the ones that are getting the money and not the children."
District 2 Supervisor John Moree said he would not raise taxes unless it was absolutely necessary.
"I do not want the people's taxes raised. The schools get 40% of the budget as it is. I am for the county and my district," Moree said.