Following a 45-minute public hearing in which four individuals expressed their concerns about rising school taxes, the Vandalia Board of Education on Tuesday passed a levy that asks for a 6.32-percent increase in property tax assessments for residents of the district.
State law requires such a “truth in taxation” hearing anytime a district’s taxation level increases by 5 percent or more.
The tax increase was needed to address shortfalls in three areas of the district budget – Social Security (to supplement support staff members’ contribution to Social Security), Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund (to help pay retirement for support staff, such as custodians, cooks, secretaries and bus drivers) and a tort fund (which prevents the district’s exposure to liability). Funds raised by this tax increase cannot be transferred to any other categories in the district’s budget.
The rate hike doesn’t necessarily translate into a 6.32 percent increase in a property owner’s tax bill. Rather, it is a 6.32 percent increase in the rate. Last year’s school district tax rate was 5.2346; this year’s rate, after the passage of the levy, will be 5.3143.
Steve Runkel of Vandalia told the board that he opposed the increase because voters in the district about 18 months ago passed a referendum to get the district out of financial trouble.
“At this point, with people losing their houses and jobs, I have a hard time with the board increasing our taxes again,” he said. “These monies could be used better. Why can’t we spend more time pursuing technology equipment rather than all the sports stuff we see?”
Superintendent Rich Well responded, emphasizing that the funds being sought are for specific accounts in which deficits are being experienced – and cannot be transferred to other accounts. He also noted that projects completed in the past year at the schools (building repairs, renovation of the gymnasium and paving of the high school parking lot) were done through the Health, Life Safety program and were mandated by the district’s insurance carrier and the Regional Office of Education.
Al Wefer also shared his concerns about raising tax rates.
“This whole thing of bailing out the school district doesn’t sound good to me,” he said. “If you can’t afford to do something, you cut back. How many people are renters and won’t pay a dime?”
Maurice Wilson questioned the timing of the tax increase.
“With the way the country is going, it’s the wrong time to ask for a tax increase,” he said. “It’s just the wrong time.”
School board president Jay Carroll said that with the county’s Equalized Assessed Valuation going up, the state aid goes down.
“With our EAV going up, the state assumes the tax at the local level is going up, and state aid is reduced by that amount. This is one of the biggest jumps the EAV has taken, and that’s bad for us.”
The fourth speaker was Dustin McKinney, who also expressed concern over the increase in taxes faced by district residents.
Well explained that school funding in downstate Illinois is much different than in the counties around Chicago and in metro east St. Louis, where much of the wealth is concentrated.
“In those ‘collar counties,’ the schools are about 5 percent state funded and 95 percent locally funded,” Well said. “It’s that way because property values are so high there. Here, we’re dependent on state funds for about 65 percent of our budget.”
He noted that the state’s superintendents are hearing that because of the state’s financial difficulties, school districts can expect a decrease of state funding of at least 8 percent.
He said that at the midpoint of the fiscal year, the state is already behind in its payments to the district by $286,390. Last fiscal year, the state never paid $200,000 in funds it owed the district.
At the conclusion of the hearing, Well thanked participants for their input, and said it is now the responsibility of the board to decide on the levy increase. He did note that what the district is asking is less than what was recommended by an Illinois School Board auditor.
During the regular meeting, the board passed the levy by a 5-1 margin, with Jay Smith casting the lone negative vote. Board member Judy Wasmuth was absent.
As he cast the negative vote, Smith said: “In light of a state taxation system that is afoul, I vote ‘nay.’”
For the average district taxpayer, whose home is valued at $60,000, the tax increase will be about $15 per year, Well said. “For a home valued at $100,000, the tax increase will be about $27 per year.
Following the meeting, Well said he was pleased with the way the hearing went.
“We had a good dialogue with the people who participated,” he said. “There was lots of give and take.
“When I was hired, it was to keep the district in the black. We’ve called on all resources at our disposal to do that job, and property taxes are a part of that picture.
“For the community to step up in the referendum to get us to zero was huge; this was a way to keep us there.”
He said the board is looking for avenues to alleviate some of the pressure on property taxes, especially in light of the unpredictability of state funding.