Education

After 2nd tax increase, recall organizers say interest is up. But time is almost out.

Lexington resident on tax increase: ‘I think we have the illusion of transparency’

Lexington resident Steve Logan gave input to superintendent Manny Caulk during a Fayette County School Board meeting regarding the process of how the county would be implementing a tax increase.
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Lexington resident Steve Logan gave input to superintendent Manny Caulk during a Fayette County School Board meeting regarding the process of how the county would be implementing a tax increase.

With days to go, an effort to gather signatures to recall Fayette County’s school safety tax is thousands of names short. But leaders of the effort say people have been “coming out of the woodwork” at the last minute to sign the petition.

Lexington attorney Dan Rose attributes the push to citizens being upset that the school board approved a second property tax increase this week. With a Tuesday deadline, “it just seems like there’s more and more people taking interest at the last minute,” said Rose.

Rose said the group will work over the weekend to try and gather the rest of the more than 13,000 signatures they need and have even discussed approaching the crowds at the University of Kentucky Football game on Saturday. Only an estimated 8,000 signatures have been gathered so far, Rose said, and he concedes that “it’s unlikely that we are going to get enough.”

But said Rose, “We haven’t quit yet.”

On July 18, Fayette County Public School board members voted to add a 5- cent property tax for every $100 of property value. That increase, according to district officials, will fund a $13.5 million initiative to make schools safer with everything from standalone metal detectors to more secure building entrances and more mental health professionals. Mass school shootings in Florida and Kentucky earlier this year, and several threats of school violence in Fayette County, prompted the initiative from Fayette Superintendent Manny Caulk.

The official deadline to collect the signatures is Saturday but Fayette County Clerk Don Blevins said that under state law when such a deadline falls on a Saturday, the deadline is extended to the end of the next business day. Because Monday is the Labor Day holiday, the deadline will be Tuesday.

Caulk has said if the safety initiative is not adopted, local schools will remain vulnerable to violence. He declined on Thursday night to comment on the last minute rally of the recall effort.

Rose said that some of the new interest in the recall has emerged since Monday, when the Fayette school board approved a second tax increase -- a general tax levy on real and personal property in addition to the school safety property tax increase. Several people at a public hearing prior to the board vote told school board members that it was unfair for them to raise property taxes twice in just a matter of weeks.

“I know how stressed you are for more funds,” William Wheeler said. “I wonder, has the board ever considered that there might be a level above which they can not ask taxpayers to pay more to the school system? You are about to do something you should not do. You are adding fuel to the fire. A month ago you added 5 cents to the tax rate. Now you are about to add another penny to the tax rate.”

The board on Monday approved a property tax increase of 1 cent per $100 of assessed valuation for the 2018-19 school year. The latest tax increase approved is expected to increase revenue for the 2018-19 school year by four percent or an estimated $9 million, school officials have said. Before Monday’s vote, the tax rates were 75 cents per $100 for real estate and 76 cents per $100 for personal property. There was no rate increase last year. The newly approved tax rates for the general tax levy on real and personal property is 76 cents per $100 assessed valuation for real estate and 76 cents per $100 assessed valuation for personal property.

Both property tax increases would mean that the total tax rates would be 81 cents for real property and 76 cents for personal property.

A property owner with a $150,000 home would be paying $90 more a year, district spokeswoman Lisa Deffendall said.

District Chief Financial Officer John White said Monday that the district needs the additional 1 cent per $100 of assessed value due to fixed costs such as salaries, benefits, utilities and insurance are escalating, including transportation costs. Construction costs continue to climb, White said. Some people spoke in favor of the tax increases.

Amanda Dennis, who oversees special education for the district, said if the 1 cent tax increase did not pass the likelihood was low that instructional improvements could continue in special education which serves nearly 5,000 vulnerable students.

Parent Joe Gibson said he was in favor of the increase approved Monday.

“We are very fortunate that we live in a town here in Lexington where we take education very seriously,” parent Joe Gibson said. “We have programs in Fayette County Schools that support the growth and development of children and also that are very engaging instructional programs for our students. This is a critical time for education in this state.”

School board vice chairman Ray Daniels told the crowd he hoped they thought the tax increase process had been transparent.

“The superintendent and his team have worked very hard to keep us...very transparent with the community,” Daniels said.

Tom Kriegel told the school board Monday that he strongly opposes school district officials increasing property taxes for safety when they have the money in reserve funds.

“You’re going to get to the point to where you can’t tax us anymore. There’s going to be a tax revolt,” Kriegel said, drawing applause.

White, the chief financial officer, explained that the school district had to maintain a healthy contingency in the event of an unforeseen circumstances such as a natural disaster that would disrupt the district. He said the district could not fund ongoing expenses with one-time money. The $31 million in contingency would only cover between five and six weeks in district expenses, he said.

But several people at the meeting said the tax increases are leaving Lexington residents in a tough spot.

Lauranne Williams said when she went out and collected signatures for the recall of the school safety tax, she saw” abject poverty” in many homes.

“They don’t have two nickels to rub together and yet you tax them so frequently and easily. It just really makes me disgusted,” said Williams.

Ron Vissing, who is part of the recall effort, said one woman who has been out gathering signatures is 78-years-old, has one arm and is raising a 13-year-old.

“She’s afraid she’s going to lose her house over all the tax increases... the increasing property taxes, the school taxes,” Vissing told the school board. “You think about her.”

The Fayette County Board of Education approved a 5 cent tax increase for school safety earlier this year, after a packed hearing for public comments.

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