It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
That, in a nutshell, describes the budget process for Columbia County government and the school system.
For the county government, keeping a lid on personnel expenses as growing sales-tax revenues help fuel a building boom has allowed the county to cut taxes three of the past four years.
Those cuts haven’t been huge, but they are actual cuts in the tax rate. And with the state having locked down reassessments for the past three years, property owners also haven’t been hit with “stealth” increases from rising home values.
Yet the county’s tax digest has grown, and is expected to rise 2 to 3 percent this year because of continued residential and commercial construction. Columbia County in many cases has been an island of prosperity in the midst of difficult economic times.
Balancing the ledger for the county’s school board has been far more difficult, however – and the future is so bleak that Superintendent Charles Nagle this past week warned board members to expect this to be the last “good” year for quite a while.
If this year’s budget is “good,” then the worst of times will indeed be bleak.
What makes it so difficult to balance next year’s budget, especially when county government seems to be doing so well? Just plug in these numbers: Under Georgia’s funding formula, the state budget is supposed to supply 80 percent of the funding for local public schools. “Now, we’re getting 52 percent,” Nagle said.
The decline in funding is bad enough, but it’s especially tough on small systems with struggling farm economies, and on larger systems with high growth rates. As one of the latter, with roughly a new school full of children added to the enrollment each year, Columbia County increasingly struggles to meet the educational expectations of its citizens without asking them to pay more for it.
Last year’s half-mill tax increase got the system over the previous state-driven budget crisis. Next year’s larger, state-created budget gap of nearly $13 million will be filled mostly by cutting educator positions and dipping into the system’s reserve funds.
And that’s the basis for Nagle’s warning: Those wells are running dry. Board members, in desperation, even floated the idea of asking the county to trim the amount it charges for collecting taxes on behalf of the school system; but as Tax Commissioner Kay Allen points out, that charge is set by state law.
Without some massive economic turnaround, or a transformation in state funding, next year’s budget holes will be filled by telling children to stay at home while school system employees, from teachers to bus drivers, take unpaid days off.
Worst of times? Not yet, but it sure looks like they’re coming.