Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Levy elimination clears hurdle

Schools closer to losing funding


By KATHERINE WUTZ
Express Staff Writer

Blaine County Schools are one step closer to losing $29.5 million in funding, after an Idaho House committee voted in favor of eliminating the budget stabilization levy Tuesday morning. Despite three hours of public testimony against the elimination of a levy that provides 60 percent of the Blaine County School District's general operating fund, the Idaho House Revenue and Taxation Committee voted 16 to three in favor, sending the bill on to the full House.

Blaine County School District Superintendent Lonnie Barber testified against the bill in committee on Tuesday, saying the impacts of eliminating the permanent levy would be "dramatic."

Currently, the district collects $29.5 million, more than 60 percent of its operating budget, through a permanent levy on county property taxes. If the legislation recommended by the committee passes, it would require the district to ask for voter approval of the levy every two years, as it does for its supplemental levies.

"Do I think our community will pass override levies? I hope they will," Barber said. "But the reality is, if voters are out of a job long enough, it will be hard to put an X in the 'yes' box."

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, testified against the bill this morning, reiterating her statement last week that the Legislature would be breaking a promise by eliminating the permanent levy.

"My core objection is that I thought we had an agreement," Jaquet said.

The agreement she referenced was set in 2006, when then-Gov. James Risch and the Legislature shifted funding for state schools from property taxes to state sales and income tax as part of the state's Property Tax Relief Act.

Jaquet said Blaine and three other districts were not receiving state funding at the time, due to the relatively high property values in those counties.

"Obviously the state could not reimburse the amount the district had decided they were willing to pay," Jaquet said, so Blaine was allowed to keep the permanent levy on county property taxes, to the tune of $29.5 million annually.

Bob Crosby, spokesman for the Sawtooth Board of Realtors, said during Tuesday morning's hearing that holding a levy to replace these funds every two years would be expensive and inefficient.

"The proposed legislation is wrong for our community," he said. "We don't feel the economic impact is one that would be helpful."

Jaquet said Blaine County voters would likely pass the levy, if required, but that likelihood is beside the point.

"We probably could pass it, but I think it sends a message about instability," she said. "It gives an uncertainty that we didn't have before."

Hailey resident and Woodside Elementary School parent Tom Archie said in testimony that the uncertainty would have impacts that range longer than the two years between levies.

"It takes five years to develop a curriculum," Archie said. "How can a district plan five to 10 years ahead?"

Russ Hendricks, spokesman for the Idaho Farm Bureau, said voter control was more important than certainty regarding school funding.

"This is a matter of fairness," he said. "Every other school district across the state gets the opportunity to vote if they want to pay additional taxes."

Barber argued during his testimony that only 40 percent of the $29.5 million collected via county property taxes is paid by Blaine County voters; the rest is paid by second-home owners who cannot vote in Blaine County.

"They've chosen to build second and third homes, and the property taxes they pay support the [county's] top employer," he said, adding, "Our tax burden in Blaine County is not onerous or out of line."

Jaquet said she expects the bill to pass the full House and pass to the Senate Local Government and Taxation Committee. If the elimination of the levy is approved, the county would have two and a half years to pass its first supplemental levy.

Katherine Wutz: kwutz@mtexpress.com




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