2016 with a projected tax rate of $2.42. Of that money, .92 cents would be devoted to the School System, 84 cents to the County General Fund, 20 cents to the Highway Department, 16 cents to the Sanitation Department, 25 cents to Debt Service and 5 cents to Capitol projects. The School System would have received a total of a 42 cent increase, including the 12 cents that is currently in place. Certainly the numbers are confusing considering that most taxpayers assumed that the 12 cent increase would fund any building projects taken on by the School System. Long also included operational cost for the new schools, including $1.125
million for another high school.
The School Board recently questioned what had happened to 2 cents of the 12 cent increase and was informed, by current Director of County Finance Helton, that it was included in the County General Fund. Unlike private savings accounts, County funds are designated for use by account. The General Fund allows the Commission access to Funds as needed, unlike individual departments or accounts such as Debt Service or Capitol Projects. By placing the 2 cents in the General Fund it can be accessed for various County needs, including Schools. Helton has stated that the County is in good financial shape and has healthy fund balances across the board. There is a total County Fund Balance of $22,564,488 million and $8,742,182 million of that total is in Debt Service, which can only be used to pay off existing debt.
While Helton cautions that the County must be mindful of maintaining their current good bond rating, he believes that the County needs to assess their Debt Service account and, rather than add to a already strong balance, pay off some existing debt. He has been in contact with the County’s Financial advisors, Morgan Keegan, and is hoping to develop a comprehensive plan to address County needs.
Jefferson County does not presently have a long term plan to address the needs of the County. Helton stated that there are a variety of funding options available that could absorb much of the proposed renovation cost for Jefferson County High School. He is also aware that additional funding may be required for road improvements around the new schools and operational costs, which would be beyond the current requested funding. Helton would like to see total numbers on the project, including operational costs, be made available to the Budget Committee. Helton contends that the County could, and should, investigate retiring some of the existing County debt and that County finances need to be addressed as a complete package, rather than as individual departments. He is also acutely aware of the funding needs in other departments. The School System presently represents 79.7% of the total County debt. That figure will rise if the County Commission approves the renovation to JCHS. There will be an influx of funds due to the new hospital lease and property tax associated with the for profit company. Jefferson County also received a windfall of sorts when money that was previously on hold due to a law suite was released for County use. The additional funds of more than $2 million are not included in the Fund Balance information. Helton has been putting together numbers for the Budget Committee to show funding avenues that will have the least impact on taxpayers and still serve the County needs. Some options show a much smaller tax increase than was projected by Long to fund the renovation package.
Jefferson County is carrying $51,724,018 million in school debt before operational costs on the two new schools, improvement to roads on Dumplin Valley or the renovation to Jefferson County High School. The renovation alone will bring that number up to $76.7 million in School Debt. Helton stated that he understands the taxpayers reluctance to trust in the government regarding taxes. Jefferson County residents pay a Wheel Tax that was supposed to have expired and believed that they had already paid for renovations with a 12 cent property tax increase. He said that the County needs to be taking a broad approach to large funding needs. County buildings, including Jefferson County High School, must be properly maintained. Roads need to be paved and the County’s E-911 and EMS, EMA services need adequate housing. The County cannot continue to operate in a “my” funding mindset. Helton stated that the County funds ultimately belong to the taxpayer, not the individual departments.
The situation at Jefferson County High School is not going to improve without Funding. The School Board is unwilling to commit funds, that are currently going to the proposed freshmen academy, to the renovation project. Much of the County Commission believes that they have already designated funds to renovate Jefferson County High School and that funding was used on the new elementary school and the proposed freshman academy. Nearly five months into the current Fiscal year, Jefferson County is no closer to pinpointing the needs of the County, whether they are six months or ten years down the financial road. Without a comprehensive plan to address all County need, the answer to the funding question is more a guess than a definitive assessment of the state of Jefferson County.