By Kimberly Combs
Taxpayers within the Clearwater R-1 School District will be paying higher property taxes this year. The Clearwater R-1 Board of Education voted Monday evening to raise its debt service levy from 35 cents per $100 assessed valuation to 40 cents per $100 assessed valuation. For a property owner with a $100,000 fair market value, the increase would equate to a $9.50 tax bill increase.
The decision to raise the taxes was approved by a 4-1 vote. Board members Elizabeth Pokorny, Robert Gayle, Jason Street, and Dennis Shearrer voted for the levy increase. James Seal cast the dissenting vote. Board members Matt Graham and Jim Seal were not present at the levy hearing.
Only six people were in the audience to listen to the discussion and were given the chance to comment on the issue during the tax levy hearing. Of the six present, five were school employees.
The school’s general operating levy will remain the same. It is currently set at the minimum amount allowed by the state. In order for it to be raised, it would have to be approved by a vote of registered voters of the district. At the current time, the school has no plans to ask for an increase.
According to information presented at the meeting, the levy increase was not anticipated. Voters approved the last bond issue in 2015 and board members sold the issue to voters as a “no tax increase” measure. However, the economy in Wayne County has stagnated and assessed valuation has not been growing.
LJ Hart, the school’s bond advisor, said that the school district’s assessed valuation has been growing at a rate of less than 1 percent.
“Once things stabilize, you could roll back the levy,” LJ Hart told board members during a teleconference at the meeting.
The increase in the debt service levy could have been greater. The state auditor recommended the school have a debt service levy of 48.20 cents per $100 assessed valuation. Hart said that the levy needs to be raised so the school doesn’t fall behind in the debt service account.
Hart recommended raising the levy this year. If the school board waited a year or more to raise the levy, a larger increase might be needed, Hart said.
Hart said that by raising the levy now, the school is being proactive. It will also allow the district to position itself for another bond issue (if needed in the future).
According to Superintendent Deborah Hand, the school’s debt service levy has been 35 cents since Clearwater R-1 has had a debt service levy.
“The growth in the district has not been what was anticipated,” Hand said. “It is easier fixed now with a minor adjustment.”
Jim Seal had major concerns about the proposal. He asked if future school boards could lower the levy. Board President Robert Gayle pointed out that the debt service levy has to be approved annually by the school board.
In recent years, the school has financed many building projects and upgrades to facilities with bond revenue. Hand said that this has been the only way the school district has been able to afford these projects. Bond proceeds were used this summer to renovate the restrooms at the high school, which had not been upgraded since the school was built in the mid 1970s. Bond money has also been used to replace air conditioning units, install security cameras throughout the district, make parking lot improvements, do roofing projects, and upgrade the fine arts building.
The school board said they had a press release detailing the levy increase. The release, which was drafted by the school’s bond company, was not submitted to the newspaper by the newspaper’s print deadline Tuesday morning. It will be posted on the newspaper’s website www.waynecojournalbanner.com and then published in next week’s newspaper.