Berkeley schools may lose $2.2M

Berkeley County Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan

Berkeley County officials want to take money from the school district to offset the county’s projected shortfall.

County Council is proposing a budget “reset” for an annual $25 million — and growing — distribution from multicounty industrial park revenue from companies such as Google, Nucor, and Blackbaud.

The action would cost the school district about $2.2 million this year, reducing its take to about $17.5 million.

“(The school district has) been getting the lion’s share for quite a while now,” Supervisor Bill Peagler said.

Many industries in the county have a fee-in-lieu of taxes agreement, an incentive that allows them to pay a negotiated, reduced fee over a certain time instead of property taxes, which can fluctuate year to year. The county’s proposed budget was about $3.75 million the red.

From at least 2002 to 2012, the county shared fee-in-lieu money, with the district getting 70 percent, County Deputy Supervisor Tim Callanan said. But in 2012, the split changed from a fixed formula to a proportion based on the tax rate, so “every time the school district raises (taxes), it lowers our revenue,” Callanan said. Now, the district gets 82 percent of the revenue. “Our share has slowly eroded over the years because we haven’t raised our (taxes). That is what we are trying to stop once and for all.”

A proposed budget amendment would restore the 70/30 distribution of the park revenue.

District officials said Tuesday they were caught off guard by the plan. “There was not enough detail for us to figure out whether it would have any negative impact on us or not,” said Interim Superintendent Mike Turner, who was not at the meeting.

But he said previous discussions with Peagler have left him “positive” that the county would not restructure the agreement, giving the district less money than if businesses paid taxes.

“Our budget was predicated on receiving that money,” said District Chief Financial Officer Brantley Thomas, who attended the council meeting.

In June, the school district passed a $238 million budget that includes a $150 tax increase on a $150,000 rental home and $20 for a $20,000 car or boat. Part of the increase was to fund additional teachers to accommodate growth, startup costs for Nexton Elementary school and raises for teachers.

Meanwhile, County Council has been grappling to balance a $63 million budget that originally would have required a $30 tax increase on a $150,000 owner-occupied home.

In June, with the proposed tax increase cut in half and the July 1 start of the fiscal year looming, council tabled the budget for the first time and passed a resolution to keep spending at 2014-15 levels through July.

Council’s move Monday came as a surprise to school district officials, who were still trying to figure out the potential impact Tuesday. The budget was tabled for a second time by a 4-2 vote at a special council meeting Monday and is set to come up again at the July 27 regular meeting. Councilmen Dennis Fish and Josh Whitley voted against the motion, and Caldwell Pinckney was absent.

Councilman Jack Schurlknight proposed delaying the budget approval, saying the county should give the district “an opportunity to come to the table and talk about it. ... This vote is going behind the school board’s back.”

Fish accused Schurlknight of grandstanding, but Schurlknight said, “Giving taxpayers the opportunity to ask about the budget supersedes everything. It’s not grandstanding. It’s giving the people the opportunity to ask questions.”

The public has had the opportunity to comment on the budget at four council meetings and a public hearing, Callanan said.

He also suggested eliminating the county’s contingency fund, about a half-million dollar annual appropriation.

Because the county has a reserve balance — which council on Monday voted to increase to 17 percent of the annual budget, although it currently has 28 percent — the contingency fund is redundant, Callanan said.

Eliminating the contingency and resetting the fee-in-lieu percentages would give the county a balanced budget.

The county’s budget includes an up-to-5 percent merit increase and a cost of living increase for employees starting in October. It also includes funds for an additional sheriff’s deputy on patrol each of the four daily shifts and eight more officers for the detention center, which will allow the county to open an unused third floor. It also includes a switch to 12-hour shifts for county EMS workers.

The county also spends about $250,000 annually to help the district fund 12 school resource officers, Callanan said.