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MV board backs referendum

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FORTVILLE — The Mt. Vernon School Board on Monday didn’t find much support for a forthcoming referendum could result in higher taxes for district residents if voters approve it in November.

At a special public meeting of the school board, members voted 4-0 to put the referendum question on the ballot. It will ask for an additional $650,000 each year for three years from taxpayers in the district.

Many farmers and residents spoke up against the potential increase in their taxes, and most suggested that the school had made mistakes in overspending and constructing new buildings, renovating the high school and keeping current administrators in their positions.

“Please, no more taxes, especially for the farmers,” farm owner Mary Jo Apple said. “I don’t know if I can handle any more taxes.”

She said she had to borrow money just to pay off a recent round of property taxes.

Residents like Carolyn Flynn and Janet Smith vowed that they would work to defeat the referendum.

“I guarantee there will be those of us working to defeat it,” Smith said.

She suggested looking at more staffing and administrative cuts to save money, while Flynn regretted the school’s $77 million renovation project.

“We never should have settled,” she said of the debate over the school building project, which was finally approved in 2005 after a contentious remonstrance period. “Put it on the ballot, and we’ll have a petition.”

Flynn recommended that the district sell off its sports facilities, canceling the swimming and football programs and focusing more on education. Resident Bob Ferryman pointed to the district’s older population that might not be able to pay more in property taxes.

“I probably know at least 12 little old widow women (who are) living on $800 or $900 from Social Security. They’re not going to make it.”

Cumberland Town Councilman Joe Siefker was the lone voice of support at the meeting, and was almost shouted down as he advocated for the referendum.

“Kids are the ones who get penalized,” Siefker told the crowd. (The increase) is small to me to make sure my kids have the opportunity they have.”

Few were convinced.

“These kids have got more than a good education,” Carolyn Flynn responded.

Despite the negative response to the referendum discussion, the question will be on the Nov. 6 ballot.

“It’s a tough call. It’s a tough decision. We don’t take it lightly,” school board President Shelton Oakes said.

Board member Kevin Burk said he was “a little disheartened” that there was not more support for the referendum, but he did want to give the public a chance to vote on it. There is no cost to have the question placed on the ballot.

Board member Vernee Eads and Burk agreed that the special public hearing was not necessarily representative of the community sentiment, and that the rest of the community should be able to vote.

If successful, the general fund referendum’s new tax rate would be 0.0794 based on the estimated net assessed value of the home.

For example, an owner of a home in Buck Creek Township valued at $100,000 would see an estimated increase of $26. On a home valued at $200,000, the annual tax hike would be about $77. A farm worth $2.2 million would experience an increase of about $1,800, or about $150 per month per year.

The $650,000 referendum was the lowest of the three options presented by the board. Others included a proposal for $1.3 million for each of the next two years, and the largest sought $4 million in two years.

“I think it’s obvious that the one that has the least impact has the best chance of passing,” Oakes said.

If the referendum is not successful, the district will be tasked with paying $161,000 in interest on loans. The money from the referendum would be used to pay off state loans sooner to avoid interest charges. As administrators prepare to apply for $3.4 million from the Distressed Unit Appeals Board, Superintendent Bill Riggs said he wanted to make sure that every opportunity was taken locally to sustain the school’s finances so that it would be clear that the school investigated every option.

With applications for millions of dollars heading to the state level from Mt. Vernon, state oversight also becomes an issue. The school will have to seek approval from the state before it spends more than $30,000 or enters into a contract more than that amount. Riggs said there are emergencies like maintenance problems that would need addressing immediately, and state restraints could interfere. But many residents in opposition to the referendum suggested that more oversight from a different party might be good for Mt. Vernon.

Oakes said that the referendum is a “short-term solution” and stressed that the district must accumulate money early before it is faced with interest charges as the restructuring continues.

“This is short-term, the referendum, but there’s also a long-term need that deals with the refinancing,” he said.

The referendum had to come quickly this year, because there are no eligible elections in 2013 and successful referendums in 2014 wouldn’t provide funding until 2015.

The district is currently restructuring its debt and preparing to formally apply for the loans from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

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