The third and final hearing will be held on Thursday, August 15 at 5 p.m. at the Board of Education Office.
Three local citizens attended the first public hearing hosted by the Board of Education regarding this year’s proposed tax increase.
The BOE had set a tentative millage of 14 mills, a 3.11 percent tax increase over the rollback millage. Because of that, three public hearings were required to be held.
Much of the discussion by the three citizens, Jeffrey Hilderbrandt, Bobby Odom and Wesley Lee, centered around the installation of AstroTurf on the football field and renovations to the athletic facilities at Metter High School. These projects are being done at an estimated $2 million.
Hilderbrandt opened public comments asking about funding for the athletic improvements, which came from the board’s general fund.
“We have a 15-year-old Athletic Facility and it was in need of some repair, and the football field in particular ... has never been a very good, playable surface,” explained Board Chair Craig Lanier. After much research, Lanier said, the board decided the most effective move would be to install artificial turf on the football field. But the decision to undertake the project happened, he explained, because of a convergence of events: State equalization funding in 2019 coming in at $2.3 million, which was higher than anticipated; strong efforts by the tax commissioner to collect delinquent taxes, bringing in more from the local tax base that previously had not been paid; less austerity cuts at the state than normal and higher ESPLOST revenues, which meant less funds from the general fund were needed for K8 construction payments.
“So we wound up with some money to spend in the fund,” Lanier said. Then the question went to what to spend those funds on. “If we start new classes, additional classes, give pay raises or start new programs, those things have to continue year after year after year. And we may not be sitting on extra funds year after year after year, so we decided to spend those extra funds on capital improvements, a one-time expenditure, not something you’d have to pay over and over, and we could do so without taking taxpayer money. The field and construction at the athletic facility has nothing to do with the fact that we are at 14 mills.”
“As a school board, we can only do very limited things to help the community,” said Board Member Johnny Vines. “For example, we cannot give to the hospital. We cannot go to the county and say, ‘Here’s a boatload of money, have it.’ What we can do is indirect, ancillary benefits. So if we have a nice facility, nice sports complex, we can host tournaments. And that brings in business.”
Board members also expressed the cost benefit of artificial turf over the long term.
As a member of the recreation board, Hilderbrandt disputed some of those comments, especially relating to maintenance costs of the field.
“At the recreation department, we have eight fields, including the old football field that’s been there since the 1960s. Our budget at the recreation department is roughly $40,000 for cutting, mowers, baseball, football, soccer, tournaments, all-stars ...,” he said.
He also expressed concerns of possible injury to players. However, while expressing those concerns, Hilderbrandt added, “I am not 100 percent against the field ...”
Bobby Odom also addressed the board, saying that increased taxes creates strain on farmers and those on limited income.
“We are one of the poorest counties in the state and we have the finest sheriff’s department, ambulance service and soon fire department. Something ain’t right,” he said.
“If we could drop our mills, we would,” Vines said, “but we would be giving up $2 million.”
Lee asked if the board would operate in the red without the equalization funding. Board members Rhonda Hendrix and Lanier both recalled a time when the board, with equalization money, still had to furlough teachers and make extreme cuts to the budget.
“From 2010-2013, we were just about year to year. We were operating in the red,” Lanier said.
Lee then asked if funds were used for programs other than athletics.
“Absolutely,” Hendrix responded. “I would invite you into our schools. Go into our programs. They are amazing. What we are doing, I would stand us up against any school system our size. One of the biggest goals we have had is to get some of the arts and those things back in that kids are interested in. I’m super proud of those things.”
“We’ve started a high school within a high school for those who don’t necessarily want to go to college but want to learn a trade,” Vines said, talking of the newly formed Metter Career Academy. “Big expenditures (like the athletic facilites), that’s what catches headlines. But trust me, there’s lots that is going on.”
A second public hearing was held Tuesday morning. Details of that meeting will be publicized next week. The third and final hearing will be held on Thursday, August 15 at 5 p.m. at the Board of Education Office.