Wheel tax referendum proposal met with special session Thursday to discuss possible Sept. 4 closing of Clay County schools

Published in print August 26, 2015

Budget committee will reconvene
prior to special meeting Monday

By THOMAS P. WEAVER
HORIZON Editor
CELINA-A potential wheel tax referendum proposal born of last week’s county budget committee meeting has prompted the Clay County school board to call a special session Thursday in response to the action.
The committee’s proposal to place a $26 wheel tax on next March’s presidential primary ballot if the school board will submit what commissioner Parrish Wright described as a “maintenance of effort budget” led to the board of education calling the 6 p.m. meeting at Clay County High School.
A notice printed on page __ of this week’s HORIZON says “the board will discuss the procedures for the possible closing of Clay County Schools September 4, 2015 pending the approval of the general purpose school and cafeteria budgets by the Clay County Commission,” but does not say whether or not a discussion of the proposal will occur.
Amid a wide array of passionate public comment and in-depth discussions among officials, Wright offered his proposal.
“I propose and request once again that y’all bring us a maintenance of effort budget and I will raise my hand and vow to work on getting a wheel tax put on a ballot in March–that will be a presidential primary—and let the people of Clay County vote on that,” the second-district commissioner said in front of the capacity crowd. “It will be a wheel tax that’s probably, I think, 26-27 dollars—that’s what it’s going to take to raise in order to get y’all $200,000.
“We’re getting nowhere on this right now and, Jerry you said, that will mean now, y’all will have to get through this year on your same budget you had last year.”
School board member Anthony Smith immediately responded.
“But if we make it this year and we dont’ get the wheel tax (passed in the referendum) where do we go from there,” he said.
“You’re going to have to cut then,” Wright answered before more heated discussion ensued delaying a vote on his proposal.
The heightened drama is a direct effect of the ticking timetable the county is under to pass a budget before they lose all spending authority after August 31 if a budget is not adopted.
County mayor Dale Reagan opened the eventful August 17 budget meeting announcing the county was denied a September 30 extension to adopt a budget leaving all county operations, including the school system in jeopardy as of September 1.
He also announced a special called meeting would be held Monday, August 31 at 6:30 p.m. to vote on the budgets of those departments that have been previously approved by the budget committee—which were published in last week’s HORIZON along with a public notice of the meeting.
This week Reagan has published the school’s proposed budget (page __) and a notice that the budget committee “will reconvene” at 6:15 p.m. just minutes prior to the special called meeting after recessing instead of adjourning two weeks earlier.
The delay in the budget committee’s vote to propose the wheel tax referendum included lengthy debate about the issue after Wright’s initial offering.
“This lets the whole county decide what they want to pay,” first district commissioner Bryan Coons said of the proposal.
“Here’s what the problem is,” director of schools Jerry Strong said in response to the request for schools to operate with the money they have on reserve. “If you take another $200K out, what you’ve done, you’ve broke your bank.
“We’re getting close now, ok, lets take another $200K out of your fund balance and then start getting a wheel tax next year that only covers the expense of the insurance and won’t build your fund balance back up, that won’t do a thing there, now your still broke and what happens if we get an increase on the insurance in the future or something else,” he continued. “Then we’re right back in the same boat again.
“If we go another year you’ve dug your hole deeper and all you’re doing is covering your expenses.”
The back-and-forth forum continued after Strong’s comments as audience members took the floor to speak.
Possibilities including a water tax, motorcycle tax, a tax on new homes, and many others were proposed, along with what Coons described as “the guaranteed money”—a property tax increase.
The wheel tax timing and process was also discussed.
“If a wheel tax was the solution, if you did that tonight, when would the first collections come in and when would the school actually notice,” Strong said.
“Ninety days, three or four months,” budget committee chair and District 4 commissioner Winton Young answered. “You have to give them 30 days to have a chance to petition.”
It was then explained a wheel tax can be passed in one of three ways:
• by two consecutive readings by the county commission with 30 days for the public to petition for a referendum;
• by a one-time vote to send it to a referendum, like Wright’s proposal; or
• by petitioning the state legislature to do a private act—which was done to install the current county wheel tax after it was petitioned and voted down.
Once many other speakers took the floor, including Celina mayor Willie Kerr—who answered questions about the city’s ambulance service contract and sheriff Brandon Boone—who addressed the county’s ongoing jail issue, Wright restated his proposal after opening with a question for Strong.
“Can you or can you not run this upcoming school year with the money you have,” he asked.
“We’ve already said yes, but then you’re broke,” Strong responded. “You’ve killed the schools.”
“Thats all I need to know,” Wright replied. “My proposal stands. Let the people decide.”
Strong then showed his appreciation for Wright’s proposal, but ended his comments according to his beliefs and to a loud round of applause.
“I can’t speak for the board and I appreciate what you’re trying to do—you’re trying to bring this to a conclusion, but I would simply say… you can’t educate your kids on a promise, I’m sorry.”
Wright followed by putting his proposal in the form of a motion and a vote was taken. The committee unanimously approved the motion.
After the vote Clay County High School principal Melissa White was given the opportunity to speak.
“I appreciate that we may get some funds… but I would ask that you give us something more permanent, something that is tangible, something that we can take back and say yes its going to work,” she said, “because in the meantime we still have uncertainty.
“To me, we’ve just prolonged the inevitable and there’s just going to be more uncertainty.”
White joined school board members Nathan Sherrell, Benji Bailey, and David West, many teachers and concerned citizens, and many more who asked questions of the budget committee.
See a future HORIZON for more details on this and other past meetings concerning this issue. Also see next week’s edition for results from Thursday’s school board meeting and more.