Green, Douglas spar over millage

WINNSBORO – They came to tout their successes as governmental agencies.

But an emerging kerfuffle over the distribution of property tax revenues quickly became the focal point at a Fairfield County intergovernmental meeting Monday.

At the previous week’s council meeting, Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas publicly called out the Fairfield County School District, saying that the district had improperly collected more than $11 million in tax revenues.

Douglas said inflated millage rates attributed to the school district overages. He noted that the windfall is on par with the $11.5 million price tag associated with renovating the old Mt. Zion institute to serve as a new Fairfield County Administration building.

“Fairfield County can’t support and pay for the new office complex at Mt. Zion if we can’t control the extra money the school system has been taking from the county funds,” he said. “Since 2012, someone in the school system has secured $11,198,389.90 over the 9.9 school debt millage they should have received.”

District superintendent Dr. J.R. Green vehemently denied any improper tax collections. Green spent about 10 minutes Monday refuting Douglas’ claim.

“The suggestion the school district is taking the county’s money is not grounded in fact,” he said. “When you start making suggestions that people are doing things illegal or unethical, that challenges and ques tions someone’s integrity.”

Other county officials were reluctant to weigh in. County Administrator Jason Taylor deferred comment to Council Chairman Billy Smith. Smith said he understood why Dr. Green defended the district’s position, but stopped short of staking a position on Douglas’ claims.

“It’s not an issue council is discussing or addressing in any way. It’s just an issue that a councilman raised,” Smith said. “I don’t see anything happening next unless Mr. Douglas develops a compelling argument to get enough people behind him for us to move forward.”

Douglas said the windfall is the result of a series of millage errors dating to at least 2012.

A year later it leaped to 32 mils, where it remained for two years. Those are the years following a school board vote to issue a $20 million bond to build a new career center.

At the time, the bond included $15.6 million for the career center, with the rest reserved for miscellaneous facility and equipment needs.

Originally the bond called for an increase to 34 mils, but in actuality it only rose from 9.9 mils to 32 mils. Millage then trickled to 23.6 mils in 2015, and then 20.6 mils in subsequent years, according to county tax documents.

Green said the district was able to issue the bond without a referendum because it met criteria that said local governments are allowed to issue bonds up to 8 percent of the assessed value of all taxable property in the county.

He also said the debt would be retired in 2025. Debt service would revert to 9.9 mills at that time.

In a telephone interview Monday, Green said it was always the district’s intent for debt service millage to gradually reduce until the debt is retired.

The Voice reported in 2013 that the debt service millage would increase for two years before dropping back down.

“It [millage] is down further than we thought it would come down,” Green said. “It’s not as if you can pay for the career center in two years.”

Douglas, however, maintains the district is reaping a windfall.

In an interview with The Voice, Douglas said he was informed by the county treasurer’s office that the district has received $175,000 in the past month alone from the county. He wrote in a memo to Taylor, the county administrator, that he thinks the district isn’t allowed to raise millage.

“State law gives the school system the right to increase millage by 3 mils each year or the cost of living increase, whichever is the least amount,” the note reads. “The millage cannot be increased at a larger amount without the Fairfield County Council’s approval.”

Green said Douglas is conflating operating millage and debt service millage. He noted the 3 percent rule Douglas cited refers to operating millage, not debt service millage.

“People are conflating two things that aren’t the same,” Green said.

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