Cape ready to increase school tax, officials say

Sunday, August 22, 2004

For the third year in a row, the Cape Girardeau School Board will consider a levy increase at its annual tax rate hearing Monday night.

But unlike the prior two years, school officials believe they now have substantial support from district patrons for a 17-cent per $100 assessed valuation increase, which does not require a public vote, but a majority "yes" from the seven-member school board.

Most of that support surfaced after the district's $1.2 million budget cuts last January, though at the time officials had hoped that those cuts alone would be enough and that a tax increase would not be necessary, said Cape Girardeau superintendent Mark Bowles.

"When we made the budget reductions over the winter, we hoped we'd see more typical assessed valuation growth this year," Bowles said.

Preliminary numbers from the Cape Girardeau County Assessor's office do not show the 3 percent to 5 percent growth in assessed valuation that the district generally saw each year prior to 2002. Instead, the growth was around 1 percent this year, which mirrors the range of growth from zero percent to 1 percent in 2002 and 2003.

"We came back at almost nothing this year, and to keep from falling behind in certain areas, we have to create more revenue," Bowles said. "Having cut as much as we feel we can cut, we have an awful lot of people telling us before we cut more to look at the voluntary reduction in the levy." Under state law, the school district sets the annual levy every August. Based on local assessed valuation, Missouri school boards have an annual tax rate ceiling set by the state auditor's office.

Since 1997, the Cape Girardeau School Board has voted to annually roll back the levy instead of taxing the full ceiling amount allowed by the state. The current levy is set at $3.99, but the district's ceiling this year is $4.16, allowing for as much as a 17-cent per $100 assessed valuation increase.

A full 17-cent raise would mean approximately $32 more a year for the owner of a $100,000 home, or around $2.69 more a month.

Specifically, school officials say the 17-cent increase, which would generate an estimated $748,000 in additional property tax revenue each year, would be targeted at four areas in the budget:

Funding the district's salary schedules so that employees have annual raises based on years of experience and continued education. Salaries for school district employees are currently frozen.

Textbook purchases and other curriculum materials.

Technology upgrades and replacements, specifically computer labs at three schools each year.

Building the district's fund balances from the current $3.9 million to $6.4 million, which would occur over several years.

If the school district's fund balance drops below 3 percent, the district would be considered "financially distressed" by the state and would lose some control over its finances. At the end of 2004, the district's fund balance is projected to be at 10 percent. For a district of Cape Girardeau's size, an 18 percent fund balance -- which would be achieved at $6.4 million -- would be a safe amount, school officials have said.

"We don't like going back and raising the levy without a vote, but we have a lot of support for that now," Bowles said. "We have to continue to do everything we can to see assessed valuation increase, and I just got to believe that's going to happen. When we see that get back into line, then we'll be on firmer footing."

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