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More Taxes for Better Schools: Adams County Hoping to Improve “F” Status

By John Mott Coffey, with News Mississippi affiliate WQNZ

NATCHEZ, Miss.–The tax increase adopted Monday by county supervisors has local property owners providing more than $500,000 in additional funds for the Natchez-Adams County school system as it tries to improve its status as an academic failure.

The average tax hike will be about $22 for an owner of a home with an assessed value of $100,000 in the coming year, according to Adams County Administrator Joe Murray.

The county board accepted the tax increase as required by state law at the request of the Natchez-Adams School District Board of Trustees.

“When the schools send it over here now, we have to pass it onto you. There’s nothing we can do about it,” Adams County Supervisor Mike Lazarus said at a public hearing Monday to explain the county budget for the next fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

The state has given NASD schools an ‘F’ two years in a row because of low student test scores. School officials have expressed optimism the grade will be better next month when the 2014 marks are posted by the state Department of Education.

The school board has requested an extra $524,335 in tax revenues from the county for the new fiscal year. The Board of Supervisors is required by law to allow this additional tax levy.

“We can’t turn them down,” Lazarus said. “Whatever they ask for is what we have to give them. If they ask for less, your taxes will go down.”

The Natchez-Adams school board in July adopted the tax increase noting it’s mainly to help cover the costs of state-mandated teacher pay raises and improving NASD school buildings.

“I don’t have any guilt about what we propose to do. The bottom line is we’ve got to educate our children,” school board member Thelma Newsome said in voting for the budget two months ago.

The school budget calls for spending a total of $40 million in the 2014-2015 fiscal year. Of that amount, about $12.7 million is from local property taxes. The school budget enacted last year totaled about $39 million, which was a $900,000 reduction from 2012.

The school tax for the current fiscal year amounts to $522 for a home assessed at $100,000 in value, according to information provided by NASD officials. The $22 average tax increase for the residence next year brings the tax up to $544. A $30,000 automobile’s assessment has it taxed this year at $470 for school funding.  That tax goes up by an estimated $20 next year.

Lazarus said Monday that he thinks too much school money is spent on administrative salaries.

“You would be shocked. That’s where the money is going,” he said. “You just go add these salaries up where you’ve got people getting a $100,000-something, $150,000 a year and go down the list.”

However, a list of administrative salaries provided by NASD Superintendent Frederick Hill’s office for the past school year shows only one salary above $100,00 – the top administrator’s $132,388 – while two other administrators earned about $90,000 and 28 others ranged from about $80,000 to $40,000 in pay.

For the total operations of county government, the Board of Supervisors is proposing to spend about $24.2 million in the next year. That’s about $171,000 less than the current budget year. Murray said the reduction is due mostly to less federal emergency watershed funds to prevent soil erosion that threatens roads and properties. The decrease in these federal funds is projected to be about $292,000.

However, at the same time, various departments are slated to get a combined increase of $300,000. This would restore funds the county board took away last year to begin paying off a $9 million bond loan to purchase the old International Paper mill property for industrial development, Murray said.

“To pay that note, I had to take a lot of my cash balances out last year to keep from increasing our taxes….That decreased our cash for this year,” he said.

The increased value of taxable properties has generated more revenues for next year to replenish various county programs, such as road maintenance.

“The increased assessed value throughout the county has allowed me to at least put $300,000 back into some of the funds,” said Murray, Adams County’s chief financial officer.

He said no across-the-board pay raise is budgeted for county government’s 220 or so employees for the second year in a row.

The Board of Supervisors is planning to formally approve the county budget Monday.

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