Although the Board of Education has not yet offered a specific building plan, one county commissioner is advocating that the county adopt a wheel tax to raise revenue for the construction of at least one new elementary school whenever the school board is ready to move forward.
Fifth district commissioner Anita Puckett, who is also assistant Principal at Smithville Elementary School, raised the issue during a county commission education committee meeting and then shared her suggestion with other members of the commission during an all committees workshop Thursday night at the courthouse.
The County Technical Advisory Service (CTAS) recently conducted a building feasibility study and concluded more classrooms are needed particularly at the lower elementary grade levels within the system.
Puckett said the county commission should act now to adopt a wheel tax and earmark the funds for school infrastructure. The commission can take action on its own to implement a wheel tax but passage requires at least a two thirds vote (10 out of 14) in support on two separate readings at least a month apart. Residents opposed to a wheel tax could mount a petition drive between the first and second readings to force a public referendum on the question.
A proposed $50 wheel tax at the current car count in DeKalb County would raise approximately one million dollars a year.
“We’re in dire need of a new school. The need is pretty much pre-K through 8 but we can build any type of school in that range as far as the need. The feasibility study only came out in the last three weeks and the Board of Education has not had time to follow up with an architectural firm to move forward with what they want to build. But my point is whatever they choose to build, we need to start looking at approving revenue to build a school. I mentioned to the education committee about a wheel tax. I know that is a sensitive subject but it is a very strong way of generating revenue to build schools. The average age of our schools is 41 years old. The newest building (Northside Elementary) is 17 years old. There is a need. It’s time to be building some schools. Its time to be moving forward,” said Puckett.
Third district commissioner Jack Barton said he doesn’t feel comfortable voting for a wheel tax before knowing what the cost of a new school is going to be. “We’ve got a good credit rating and we can borrow money any time so I don’t agree with doing a wheel tax before we know the costs,” said Barton.
Fourth district commissioner Wayne Cantrell said he would rather the public decide the issue in a referendum. “I’m all for building a new elementary school but I wouldn’t be for a wheel tax unless the people vote it in. Put it on a referendum next August (2018). If they vote it in we’ll have the money. If they don’t we’ll do it the old way, “ said Cantrell.
Commissioner Puckett said she preferred the county commission making that decision fearing the public would reject a proposed wheel tax at the ballot box. “My honest opinion is that if it goes before a referendum it will not pass due to the fact that people look at just taxes increased and that’s all they look at. They don’t think about the needs. They are not in the buildings. They don’t see the buildings. They don’t understand what is going on within the building. They don’t see the feasibility study. They don’t hear this information. They don’t understand this information. I feel like it should be laid upon the hands of this commission,” said Puckett.
Commissioner Cantrell said if and when a new elementary school is built, the county doesn’t have to go looking for land since there is ample room for another facility at the campus of Northside Elementary. “We have 17 acres at Northside. We bought 34 acres there 17 years ago with the idea of expanding. I don’t know why we need any land,” he said.
Cantrell added that the bonds on Northside Elementary will be paid off within a couple of years which will free up funds to start another school building project through another bond issue. “When these bonds are paid off that money is freed up. That’s a lot of extra money,” he said.
After consulting with the county’s financial advisor Steve Bates by text message, Commissioner Barton said a $50 wheel tax might not be sufficient to service the debt on a $30 million note for a new school building. “$30 million at our credit rating on a 25 year note would be $1.8 to $1.9 million a year in a note. If our wheel tax is $50 it would (generate revenue) be only half of that. $60 million which would be two schools is $3.6 to $3.7 million a year in a note. We could have a wheel tax that even with the note paying off (on Northside) still doesn’t come close to paying the note on what we need to build,” said Barton.
Fourth district commissioner Jonathan Norris said the county still has to plan. “We can’t build four new schools. I don’t know if we can build two. But I do know that eventually we are going to have to a build a school whether it’s a K-5, high school or whatever we are going to have to build it. Our bonds are going to be paid off. But we’ve been paying 20 years at a half million dollars a year on Northside. That’s $10 million dollars. We can free up that half a million dollars but a new school in 2017 is $35 million. How long is that bond going to be,” asked Norris?
Third district commissioner Bradley Hendrix said he is not necessarily opposed to a wheel tax but would like its revenues to be divided for other needs. “I’m not against a wheel tax but I would like to see other projects done along with the schools. Do we give schools all the wheel tax money?. Do we give them a percentage of it?. I would like to see a big park built with baseball fields and soccer fields, etc. all together where parents don’t have to run back and forth from one field to another,” said Hendrix.
“I am a huge supporter of our athletics too and I don’t disagree with you Bradley but there are grants out there and to me that’s money you seek after for that (ball fields). There are not grants out there for education (school infrastructure). If we do a wheel tax it needs to go to the greatest need (schools) which affects the most kids,” said Commissioner Norris.
First district commissioner Julie Young said she doesn’t favor funding a school project until she sees a plan from the school board. Young went further saying she believes the school board also ought to make a good faith effort to cut their budget before asking the commission to spend more money.
“If our school board wants a school and we as a county commission want a school I’ll support it but I’m not going to hand them over money and say do what you will. I am taxed to death. Our elderly are taxed to death. Everybody is taxed to death. I will give them a school. Our students deserve it. But they (school board) are going to have to come over here and sit down and say I’m cutting every department,” said Young.
Puckett may raise the wheel tax issue again during Monday night’s monthly county commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the downstairs courtroom of the courthouse.