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Another tax hearing
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It was good to see the public get involved in the process of government this week. It’s too bad it doesn’t happen more often, but that’s an editorial for another day.

For now, we want to commend members of the public for making their thoughts known on a proposed millage rate increase by the Bryan County Board of Commissioners. To the Board’s credit, it scheduled an additional hearing to hear the concerns of its constituency.

Next week the process will be repeated, because there are three scheduled tax hearings for the Bryan County Board of Education -- which has tentatively approved a 2 mill tax hike of its own. The first is Monday at 11:30 a.m. at the School Board office in Pembroke. The second is at 6:30 p.m. at Carver Elementary in Richmond Hill. A third is set for 6 p.m. on Oct. 5 at Carver Elementary, and then the BoE will meet to formally adopt its budget.

Some public opposition is likely, again given the state of the economy. No one wants higher taxes, especially not at a time when many are struggling to make ends meet.

Yet the stark reality is that our local governments have to have tax dollars to provide the basic services vital to the well being of our community. In the case of our schools, that service is an important one -- perhaps the most important outside public safety and we are fortunate that our schools do their job well.

Yet there is nothing free about public education. It is a costly undertaking.

Still, in the past few months, officials at Bryan County Schools say they have trimmed more than $4 million from last year’s $53.5 million operating budget through a combination of job cuts by attrition and lowered spending.

But as they also note, more than 80 percent of their budget goes to salaries, and educators are on a state mandated pay scale, leaving them little option in that regard.

And since the BoE operates on a July 1-June 30 fiscal year, a good portion of the school system’s $6 million capital reserve has already been spent on salaries while awaiting formal adoption of a budget.

School officials also estimate losing more than $10 million in state revenue since 2003, but this is the first tax increase the BoE has asked for since 2002 -- when the millage was 17.00 -- higher than the 15.537 the school board has tentatively approved for this fiscal year.

It is also important to remember that SPLOST funds are for certain voter-approved projects only and can’t be used for the day to day operations of our schools.

Additionally, while resources have dwindled, the schools have grown in size -- a victim of their own excellence, perhaps. In 2000, there were 5,020 students enrolled in our schools. There are more than 7,022 this year.

Those are just some of the numbers taxpayers who take the time to attend one of the budget hearings will likely hear. They may also hear that the only alternative left to Bryan County Schools outside raising the millage rate is a reduction in force -- in other words, layoffs. School officials believe that will negatively impact the system’s ability to educate this community’s children.

As noted before, we believe tax hikes should be a last resort and we believe that to be the case here.

But we also urge taxpayers to attend at least one of the public hearings, hear what officials have to say and draw their own conclusions. That is what local government should be about.

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