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Town hall meeting explores pros and cons of voted local levy

Article Date: 
7 June, 2013 (All day)

It was standing room only in the Morgan City offices for a town hall meeting with six resident panelists prepared to offer options to the voted local levy.
Jim Bledsoe, a four-year county resident who plans to vote against the levy, acted as moderator.  The panelists included the following four residents, who are all planning to vote against the levy: Brent Anderson, local businessman; John Barber, who operated Barber Brothers Ford for 14 years; Kera Birkeland, small business owner; and Joe McFarland, father of four children who have gone through Morgan schools. 
Panelist Tina Cannon, a tax professional and mother of four, said she is undecided on how she will vote on June 25’s ballot.  Panelist Jennie Earl, a 10-year resident with a master’s degree in elementary education, did not want to comment on if she was pro- or anti-levy.
As a tax professional, Cannon said many of her Morgan clients consider it dangerous to speak out and alienate their customers, which are a rare commodity in the county.  She said she decided to serve as a panelist because a business owner’s view is not often represented in the voted local levy debate.
“There has been a lot of talk about how this will affect the average household, but not the business view,” said Cannon, the daughter of two school teachers who also has two sisters employed in education.  “Businesses can’t shoulder the load themselves.”
She noted that businesses are taxed at 100 percent of assessed value, while home owners are taxed at 55 percent.
John Barber considered the town meeting a “nondenominational” gathering meant to discuss the pros and cons of the levy, which he called the “forever tax.”
Carl Hipwell, husband of School Board Member Jody Hipwell, said every cent of the levy would go to the school district’s general fund.  He said Morgan was almost last on the state’s list considering per pupil spending.
Anderson, a Peterson resident for 10 years, questioned the sense of recently building the Trojan Century Center, which includes only two classrooms.  
Carl Hipwell said the Trojan Center is an important part of physical education to combat child obesity.
Cannon said that according to the state superintendent who recently spoke at a Morgan GOP-hosted event, local school boards can decide on funding allocations set in both the capital and operating funds.  It was a locally controlled accounting procedure that overfunded the capital account even before the legislature allowed the transferring of capital funds to the general fund for a few years, she said.
John Barber shared examples of how taxes have affected his local Ford dealership in the past, including how the levy would affect him in the future.  Property taxes at Barber Brothers Ford raised 78 percent from 2003 to 2012.  If the levy passes, the taxes would rise another 25 percent, he said.
Many in the audience said the change from 2003 to 2012 could be because property valuations throughout the county decreased with the down economy, so the state tax commission adjusted the certified tax rate upward to compensate and guarantee schools’ funding.
John Barber said nearby Park City has not seen similar increases.  A friend running a car dealership in Park City has seen an increase in taxes equaling 40 percent while Barber’s went up 78 percent in the same time period.
“If our expenditures go up, we have to pass it on to our customers and we can’t be competitive,” said John Barber, who is on the Morgan Area Chamber of Commerce.  “We want people to work here, spend money here and raise a family here.”
McFarland encouraged the school district to take a hard look at the $270,000 in discretionary funds meant for extra-curricular activities.
McFarland also encouraged lobbying the state legislature to fully fund mandates such as transportation. Currently, the state reimburses the district for only half of transportation costs, said McFarland, a 27-year Morgan resident.
“I believe the shortfall shouldn’t be on the back of people struggling with the economy,” McFarland said.  “Extra-curricular activities not educationally related should be paid for by the users, not the whole tax base.  That is not the best use of our taxes.”
Cannon said that while the county wants to build a business base, increasing property taxes would be included on the list of why businesses should not locate in Morgan.
Birkeland, mother of four, said that if the levy passes, there would be no motivation to change how the school operates in the near future. Earl noted that recent financial needs have resulted in services rendered and monies donated to the district that otherwise may not have been realized.
“There is no crisis,” said Birkeland, a licensed foster parent. “We have the money.  You put it where you want to see it first and have the shortfalls fall on the extras.”
Funding for those extras could be picked up by the Morgan Education Foundation, Birkeland suggested.
Earl, who has served on the Morgan Elementary Community Council, said the levy will be on the ballot in the wake of tax rates that were increased during a truth in taxation hearing in August 2012.
Cannon said that a strengthening economy may help the district’s situation as teachers on higher pay scales feel more comfortable retiring, and the district replaces them with teachers earning a lower income.
“We are heavy-ended now,” said Cannon, who serves as PTSO volunteer coordinator and a special education coach.
Resident Sam Barber said he felt it was “very dangerous and frightening” to give the five people on the school board “indiscriminate” power to set tax rates well into the future.  Instead, he would like to see a panel of business people set up to help the district analyze its budget.
“I am not suggesting the schools are left hanging out to dry,” Sam Barber said.  “I think a business task force could help the school solve this.”  
Earl, who served as president of Morgan Empowered for two years, said aggressive lobbying on the state level for Morgan could help.
“We need to be actively talking with legislators so the legislature meets Morgan’s needs,” she said.
Superintendent Ken Adams said Morgan County, Morgan City and the school district “have not come together yet” on the issues facing the county.
Cannon agreed, saying, “It is time to stop the circular firing squad.”
Earl and Birkeland both said the state should be allowed more say on the use of property from which school trustland funds are taken.
Educator Jared Barlow said 33 students in a second grade classroom and 45 students in a high school science classroom represent classes that are too large.  He said the school district presented a solution to that in the form of putting the levy on the ballot.  
“Nobody wants a tax increase,” said Barlow, a Mountain Green resident.  “We want solutions, for next year.”
McFarland, who earned an engineering degree from Brigham Young University, admitted that the solutions presented by the panel could take years to implement.
Adams said the school district has already made moves to have parents fund extracurricular activities.  A county recreational tax provides $270,000 while fundraising and fees count for another $260,000 to fund extra-curricular activities.  The district also recently increased athletic and transportation fees, he said.
“Parents are paying more than half for extra-curricular activities now,” Adams said.
Courtney Wallin, a former speech pathologist with the district, said Morgan runs a conservative district. With no dual immersion program, limited full-day kindergarten offerings and no on-staff psychologist, “it is a conservative board,” she said.
“No one is saying the solutions are easy,” Cannon said.  “There needs to be a set list of priorities, and then fund those items first.”
Cannon said the school district could get the money in one of two ways: voluntarily or by tax.
Jan Forsberg, a Mountain Green resident, noted that 40 percent of taxes are paid by land owners not living in the county.
“Forty percent of people don’t have a say and will pay because they have a business interest,” she said.  “They are using our county and should pay.”
Several audience members pointed out that in order to raise the $350,000 being sought by the school district, each student would have to come up with $140.  For parents with multiple students in the school system, donations of that amount might be cost prohibitive and therefore should be spread out over all property owners, Forsberg said.
School Business Administrator D’Lynn Poll said that while the district has received hundreds of thousands of dollars recently in redemption taxes, the state legislature has changed the law to claim the redemptions as a “windfall.”  As such, the district’s budget would be reduced by the amount of redemption taxes the following year.
Poll also noted that those struggling financially could take advantage of government programs to help with paying their property taxes.  At the suggestion of this, some audience members said they would rather work harder than use government programs.
Poll said that if voters pass the levy, Morgan could qualify to receive additional funds from the state.  However, when adjusting for redemption taxes, the added funds would amount to between $12,000 and $15,000.
In comparison, larger school districts like Provo and Alpine see added funds to the tune of $37 million, Earl said.
While chairman of the Christian Heritage School Board, John Barber said the charter school mandated 20 hours of voluntary service per parent per semester.  They screened parents for qualifications, and “plugged” parents’ volunteer hours into the areas they were qualified to help.  Some parents volunteered their own vehicles to transport students to basketball games, he said.  
John Barber also mentioned refinancing school bonds as an option to help funding deficiencies.  
“I am glad we are one of seven districts in the state without a levy.  We are proud we are one of seven,” John Barber said.  “We are entrepreneuring enough to take care of this.  We have ways we can fix this.  We can do this on our own.  We have business people who can help out,” referring to a business task force mentioned earlier.
Adams said that worst case scenario, both Mountain Green and Morgan Elementary schools would be down one teacher, and the middle school and high school would be missing a science teacher the two schools shared.  These teachers have left on their own, as has the vice principal at Morgan Middle School, which will not be replaced.  All district employees will be furloughed two days.
“There are ways to balance the budget if the public wants,” Adams said.
School board member Jody Hipwell said the changes would mean the high school may not be able to offer a physics class that is necessary for students to qualify for certain scholarships.
Anderson, a father of five who has owned retail, real estate and construction businesses in the past, said the district may have too many administrators at nine.  He suggested administrators consider teaching courses as well.
Jody Hipwell said many times administrators will substitute teach to reduce costs.
“Our administrators are already busy and overloaded,” she said.
Peterson resident Holly Anderson suggested looking at online courses as well as a four-day school week to curb transportation and school lunch costs.
“We have our eyes on the board.  We are watching you,” said resident Jim Jones.  “I want to live in a country where you can all participate and ask questions.  This meeting was put together to see other options.  This is a good thing.”
Bledsoe said another town hall meeting is scheduled for June 20.