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School repair fund may dash hopes of revenue neutral tax rate

The effort to keep Henderson County’s tax rate at a revenue neutral level was cast into doubt last week as commissioners discussed whether to renew a maintenance and repair fund for K-12 public schools and Blue Ridge Community College.

When he announced his recommended budget on May 1, County Manager John Mitchell presented a spending plan that lowered the tax rate from 56.1 to 43.1 cents, although he warned at the time commissioners would need to make the call on the so-called MRTS. Sometimes referred to in shorthand as Mr. T, the fund stands for maintenance, repair, technology and security. It added 5 cents to the county’s tax rate four years ago — with 3 cents of the levy going to schools and 2 cents to BRCC. The fund was one of the main topics that appeared likely to cause a higher tax rate during commissioners’ daylong budget session last week. The tax rate will be applied to the new county tax base, which rose by 48 percent countywide after the quadrennial reappraisal of real property.
“We cannot zero out MRTS,” Commissioner Bill Lapsley, a civil engineer who has long preached the importance of preventive maintenance. “I have been a supporter of that effort from the first day I walked onto this commission nine years ago and I will not vote for a budget that has that at zero.”
The money, he added, had been spent responsibly and wisely.
“In seven years of debating the expenditures in this category, I’ve found the school board, the staff to be extremely prudent in how they arrive at the projects that they’ve included in there,” he said. “I think they planned it well. Their budget estimates have been good. They’ve been very close every year. So I have no reason to think that those numbers are not accurate and reasonable.”
“I recognize that that means an increase to the proposed revenue neutral number,” Lapsley added. “But to leave it out would be a major mistake for this county.”
Commissioner Edney said he would support “some number” higher than zero but wasn’t ready to endorse the full 3 cents.
“I think we need to remember we’re not doing capital projects, we’re doing maintenance projects,” he said. “We need to look at the list in a little more detail and look at whatever else we’re gonna be spending on before we commit to another $5 million (for K-12 schools) at this point.”
Schools Superintendent Mark Garrett said the maintenance appropriation had paid for much-needed security improvements at every school.
“We feel much better where we are now than we were just a few short years ago on those safety pieces,” he said. “In my previous role I was relying on Safe Schools Act grants. This allowed you to have an actual plan and to execute that plan in a timely manner.”

‘We were good stewards of the dollars’

BRCC President Laura Leatherwood and Board of Trustees Chair Chip Gould also implored commissioners to renew the 2-cent property tax levy, which would generate $8.7 million over the next four years.
“We were good stewards of the dollars and we got a lot done in those four years we would not have otherwise been able to do,” Leatherwood said. “We anchor our work” to the MRTS fund. “That’s how we plan, that’s how I plan resource allocation. That’s how I plan staffing. And we have not wavered. We have done that projection. We’ve included (construction cost) escalation.”
BRCC has done its part, she added, to supplement county taxpayers’ investment. In the past four years, its foundation has raised $10.5 million to support capital projects and operations, she said, and another $2 million to provide free college for county students and it recently won a $2.9 million grant for the next new facility it plans to build.
Gould noted that BRCC had just graduated its largest class ever.
“We’ve got one of the fastest growing community colleges in the state,” he said. “We are one of the best, if not the best, workforce development programs in the state.”
The partnership with the county to make capital improvements, he said, has been a driver of the college’s success.
“On behalf of the Board of Trustees, I ask that you continue the MRTS program and also allow the two cents to continue to be funded to Blue Ridge,” he said. “I think those efforts are paying off day in and day out. I think you can visibly see the results for your investment.”
The board took no action but will revisit the MRTS spending decision before it adopts the budget. County Manager John Mitchell told commissioners the finance staff will bring back options for funding the maintenance, technology and security allocation at their June 5 meeting.