The Forsyth County Board of Education set the school system’s final tax rates Thursday night, with the overall millage rate rising about 2 mills.
The vote came after board members heard from seven residents, most of whom asked them to find other ways to pay off the system’s bond debt and balance the budget.
The speakers included the leaders of the local Democratic and Tea parties.
"Do not try to pad your budget this year on the backs of the people that are really having a hard time even putting food on the table," said Sharon Gunter, chair of the Democrats.
Local Tea Party founder Steve Voshall offered ways to make budget cuts, including additional furlough days , increasing student food costs and rolling back salaries.
But after the meeting, he said it didn’t make much of a difference.
"Their decision was already made before we got there," he said. "There was nothing, I don’t think, we could have said … that would have changed their mind.
The board voted 5-0 to approve a 1 mill increase to the system’s debt services, or bond, millage rate, which was previously 1.418 mills.
Raising the bond millage rate to 2.418 mills will generate an estimated $7.8 million, officials said, enough to pay off another year of voter-approved bond programs from 1992, ‘95 and ‘98.
It will also leave about $1 million toward reserves.
A mill, the rate used to calculate taxes, is equal to $1 for each $1,000 in assessed property value. Assessed value is 40 percent of actual market value.
While seven people addressed the board, many more were in the crowd.
Concern over the tax increase had grown since the board announced its intentions earlier this summer.
The increase comes just months after voters approved an extension of the five-year 1-cent special purpose local option sales tax, or SPLOST, for education.
The bulk of the tax program, which will not take effect until July 2012, will go toward retiring the system’s 2005 and 2007 bond debts.
Official information released prior to the March referendum had stated if the tax extension was not approved, the board would have to increase property taxes to make the bond payments.
School board member Nancy Roche addressed that issue Thursday night, saying the situation would have been much worse had the tax failed.
"There was a misconception that it was either the SPLOST or the millage rate," she said. "It has always been a combination of the two.
"If we would have voted ‘no’ on the SPLOST this past spring, we would be looking at increasing this millage rate 4 to 5 mills and not just the 1 mill to cover that because we still have to pay [bond debt]."
In addition to raising the bond millage rate, the board also increased its maintenance and operations millage rate, used to fund the budget.
The board could have voted to raise the rate as high as the rollback rate of about 16.58 mills.
The rollback rate is the tax levy that takes into consideration changes in the values of property in the county.
The rollback increase is intended to offset losses in property values and ensure tax collections remain constant.
According to the Forsyth County Tax Assessor’s Office, 66,000 of the county’s some 77,500 properties dropped in value over the past year.
That also means Forsyth County Schools would have collected nearly $12 million less than last year, had the millage rate not risen.
The board discussed the merits of raising the rate, previously at 15.395 mills, to 16.032 mills, which would have covered only the $5 million shortfall in this year’s budget.
Board member Kristin Morrissey said she preferred the minimum increase, despite a projected $6.5 million budget shortfall next year, when federal grant money runs out.
Morrissey has said the board could always revisit next year’s shortfall later.
To that end, she voted against the final millage rate of 16.3 mills, considered the halfway point between the minimum and maximum.
"That number brings in more revenue than we need to satisfy the budget that we passed in June," she said.
"Personally, I’m in favor of setting the millage rate no higher than needed to balance our budget as we presented and as we discussed."
The other four board members did not agree with her, maintaining the additional tax revenue will supply a much-needed cushion for surprises such as rising health care costs.
Board member Darla Light said meeting halfway is a good starting point, while noting if the economy doesn’t improve, the district could be facing a similar shortfall next year.
"We’ve made cuts everywhere that we can without really sacrificing a lot of these kids’ education and I’m not willing to do that because I feel like most of the people that elected me, elected me to try to weigh the difference in what was important and what wasn’t," she said.
"I believe we’re to the point where what we have is important."