Lexington’s school safety tax was approved. Will a battle to recall it be next?

The morning after Fayette County Public Schools board members approved a property tax increase intended to make its schools among the safest in the America, Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins Jr.’s office staff was already hearing from people who want to recall it.

Thursday marked the beginning of a 45-day window for people to collect enough signatures to put a recall of the property tax increase on the ballot for a special election.

By 12:30 p.m. Thursday, Blevins said, “we’ve had one person pick up our form” to start collecting signatures and three additional people had inquired about what they needed to do to put the issue to a public vote. The four people interested in pushing a recall did not leave their names, the county clerk said. By Friday morning, Blevins had received several more inquiries about launching a recall effort.

“There’s interest out there,” he said.

Blevins said the timing of the school board’s vote means that a referendum cannot be held during the November general election as some Lexington residents have suggested. A special election would have to be called as has happened in other communities.

On Wednesday night, after a heavily attended public hearing featuring emotional arguments on both sides, school board members unanimously added a 5‐cent property tax for every $100 of property value. It is intended to pay for Superintendent Manny Caulk’s wide-ranging $13.5 million plan to improve school safety in the district, adding everything from more secure entrances, to walk-through metal detectors at middle and high schools, to more district police officers and mental health professionals.

The property tax increase will cost the average homeowner with a $175,000 property about $7.30 per month, or $88 a year.

Fayette County schools faced numerous threats to school safety following fatal school shootings in Western Kentucky and Florida earlier this year, prompting Caulk to convene a safety advisory council that made the recommendations in his plan. Some people at the hearing said they couldn’t argue with the need for safety improvements to schools, but they didn’t want the tax increase.

In an interview, Blevins told the Herald-Leader what has to happen next for a special election to be held.

First, someone has to form a committee of five people and file paperwork with respect to the committee. Then they have 45 days from Thursday to collect 13,632 signatures — 10 percent of the number of people in Fayette County who voted in the last presidential election — that they need for a valid petition.

Once Blevins receives the petition or petitions, he said, he has 30 days “to validate that they have sufficient names” or they don’t. If the petition is valid, Blevins has an additional 35 to 45 days to hold a special election to determine if the tax increase will be recalled.

“It will definitely not be on the November ballot. There’s almost no way for all the timing to work out for it to work that way,” Blevins said. The special election could be held in or around November, “but it will not be coincident with the general election this year, “ he said.

“We won’t know for certain that we will have a special election until after the ballots are already set for the general election,” he said.

Dozens of people attended a special meeting of the Board of Education to vote on a tax increase to pay for school safety upgrades at the Fayette County Public Schools Central Office in 2018 in Lexington. Alex Slitz

In August, in a separate decision, the school board will also decide what it wants to do about the normal property tax rate like it always does, Blevins said. He said that decision is due Aug. 31 so he can prepare tax bills and the sheriff can collect the taxes.

In August 2017, the growth in Fayette County’s property tax base was enough that the Fayette County Public Schools could realize a 4 percent increase in revenue while keeping the property tax rate the same. School officials have said that they anticipate this year’s growth in the property tax base could enable them to lower the tax rate and recoup the 4 percent increase.

The tentative budget approved by the Fayette County Board of Education in May was predicated on a 4 percent increase in local revenue to help offset the state budget cuts.

On Wednesday night, school district officials referred people with questions about how to pursue a recall on the safety tax increase to Blevins’ office. They said that the school board could not put the issue on a ballot and the process called first for a vote from the board on the tax increase.

Blevins said at this point, a special election for a recall of the school safety property tax increase would have to be held after the annual tax bills are prepared.

“The school board is risking two things with this decision,” said Blevins. “If there is a special election, they will be responsible for paying for it. And the second thing is if the tax bills are issued and the special election results in a recall of the tax increase (for safety), they will be responsible for reprinting tax bills if necessary and for refunding taxpayers the difference in the amount that they increased it by.”

“We have received a tremendous outpouring of support from members of our community who understand the moral imperative we have to take all steps possible to safeguard our students and staff,” said Fayette County Public Schools Spokesperson Lisa Deffendall. “We don’t want to begin to speculate about what may or may not happen during the next 45 days or beyond.”

Meanwhile, a similar discussion is getting under way in another Kentucky county. The Bowling Green Daily News reported that Warren County Public Schools will need to consider a tax increase of 2 cents to pay for school safety improvements.

Lexington resident David Ketron, who told the Herald-Leader last week that he would try to get enough signatures to put the Fayette County tax increase on a ballot, said Thursday that he was not the person who had already picked up a form to start a petition. But Ketron said he had requested a packet of information about the process from the Fayette County Clerk’s office.

Additionally, Lexington resident Steve Lombardo was among the people who told school board members on Wednesday night that he supported a referendum as a means of slowing the tax proposal enactment. Lombardo said that would allow more engagement with residents and property owners.

Ketron said Thursday he had heard from other people who want to sign a petition that could result in a referendum for the Fayette tax increase for school safety initiatives.

“Everybody that I have talked to has the same position that I have,” said Ketron. “We’re all for school safety. We’re all for implementing whatever measures need to be taken, but why does it have to come from a property tax?”

A referendum in nearby Woodford County to raise taxes so that a new high school building could be built failed in June. Officials there said there won’t be another opportunity to build a new high school for 12 years.

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Superintendent Manny Caulk applauded at a school board meeting in July. Alex Slitz

Caulk has said that if the property tax increase for safety does not happen in Fayette County, none of the recommended measures would be implemented and schools would remain vulnerable.

One proponent of the property tax increase said that the business community was likely to oppose a recall effort.

Alan Stein, the past chairman of the board of Commerce Lexington, represented the business community as he spoke to Fayette school board members in favor of the property tax increase on Wednesday night..

“Our children who we have supported for so many years can only be successful in an environment where they feel comfortable and feel safe,” said Stein. “Commerce Lexington unanimously supports this measure.”

In an interview Thursday, Stein said, “it is pretty much implied that the business community would mount a public relations effort of some significance to ensure that a recall would be defeated.”