Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Ledgemont Treasurer Has Positive Vision for District
July 20, 2014 | 1 Comment

Voters Will Be Asked to Pass One or More Levies in November

Belinda Grassi describes herself as a positive person. So implementing a five-year plan she has been working on for months is not something she hopes voters in the Ledgemont school district will buy into, it is something they will.

Belinda Grassi describes herself as a positive person.

So implementing a five-year plan she has been working on for months is not something she hopes voters in the Ledgemont school district will buy into, it is something they will.

“People need to know that there’s actually a plan in place for the district,” Grassi, the district’s treasurer, said following Friday’s monthly meeting of the Ledgemont Financial Planning and Supervision Commission. “We have to move from the hanging on mode into here is what is going to happen when we survive.”

A large whiteboard in her office lists seven items, under the heading “Long Range – BIG PICTURE Plan,” she expects to accomplish over the next half decade.

“This is not impossible,” Grassi said. “I look at that and go, that’s completely not impossible.”

The first two items — inside millage shift and closure of the high school — already have been accomplished, Grassi said, even though the Ohio Attorney General’s Office has not opined on whether she can legally transfer solvency assistance payments to a special debt service fund, thereby triggering a shift of 4.5-mills of inside millage.

The Geauga County Budget Commission, however, has agreed to and approved the millage shift.

“As far as the county is concerned, that is what they are going to be doing in January, with or without the attorney general’s opinion,” Grassi said. “They have approved it at the county level.”

She added, “At this point, they will be collecting those taxes because nobody has told them otherwise.”

The movement of the inside millage will drop Ledgemont below the statutory 20-mill floor, automatically triggering an increase in homeowners’ property taxes without a vote of the people.

Grassi estimates that unvoted increase to be about 4.2 mills, or $420,000. In the Ledgemont school district, 1 mill equals about $100,000.

If the attorney general’s office determines the district cannot move the inside millage, then “all bets are off and we have to remove that from the picture,” the treasurer explained.

Levy Issues

Even with the shift of inside millage, Grassi said her five-year forecast shows Ledgemont will still be running a “slight deficit and we can’t continue to run in a deficit.”

So, the Ledgemont Schools Board of Education has recommended placing two continuing levies on the November ballot: a 4.49-mill property tax levy and renewal of a 1.25-percent earned income tax, beginning Jan. 1, 2016.

These are items three and four of Grassi’s seven-part vision.

Passage of the property tax levy would generate an additional $450,000 in new revenue while renewal of the income tax — originally passed in May 2010 — would raise $1 million per year.

“It doesn’t mean we’re going to go forward with both of them,” Grassi told commission members Friday, adding board members are “kind of on the fence” on which direction they want to go.

Grassi said she had recommended the board proceed with a new property tax levy — something voters have not approved since the 1980s — but during a June work session, board members also discussed placing an early renewal of earned income tax levy on the ballot.

While the district treasurer favors a property tax levy, Grassi explained there is no “downside” to submitting both to the Geauga County Board of Elections and then pulling one at a later date.

“My recommendation still will be on Tuesday (July 22), when we have the next board meeting, to just pass one,” she added. “They (board) had thought to go with the income tax levy because if people don’t support the income tax, then they’re not willing to support us, period. And then we still have a couple more tries.

“My thought is if we don’t ask for the property tax millage now, we don’t get it in January. If we ask for it, we get it. If we wait until May (2015), you don’t get it until 2016. That’s too far along for me.”

Grassi explained her “plan” all along has been to request a smaller millage, which, when combined with the millage shift, should bring the district some financial stability and “maybe bring a thing or two back.”

“Nothing expensive, but something that people can hold on to, and go in May for the income tax (renewal),” she said, adding if the renewal did not pass in May, the district could still seek it next November.

“I just think that people need to see small steps,” Grassi said.

The treasurer also emphasized the selling of a property tax levy this November must include a statement that the district also is going to ask voters for renewal of the earned income tax in May 2015.

“I don’t want to shy away from it, because that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Grassi told commission members. “I want people to know up front that we are asking for this property tax millage with the plan that if you pass this, we can continue to do business, we can continue to operate and serve the needs of the students that we have here. Then, we are going to ask you for this millage in May and I’m going to expect you to pass this.”

School Debt Forgiveness

Commission Chairwoman Jackie Hoynes asked what impact the new state law allowing school districts to consolidate with debt forgiveness has on Ledgemont’s outlook.

“We are still looking at that,” Grassi said, of HB 216, “but people really don’t want to play ball with us right now, even with the debt forgiven.”

She said Madison Schools is the exception, but Ledgemont officials are not warm to the idea of consolidating with a Lake County school system.

Grassi also said she and Superintendent Julie Ramos have talked with the other Geauga County school districts and believe it makes sense for the smaller districts to come back to the table and discuss merger and consolidation.

“There is one (Berkshire) that doesn’t even want to consider that,” she added.

Grassi said it makes sense to have four school districts in the county instead of seven.

“When you look at the enrollment in Geauga County, and it’s the size of one school district in Lake County in total, we have to start looking at things like that,” she told commission members. “I know people want their identities, and I get all that. It’s just really hard for us to make great decisions without lots of people’s cooperation.”

For Hoynes, the bottom line is students in these districts are not getting the opportunities they deserve and need to have.

Commission member Anita Stocker suggested opponents of any new property tax would “certainly say why are you doing this when you can merge and forgive it all.”

Grassi said she recommends a 4.49-mill property tax for two reasons. First, it is less than 4.5 mills. Second, it technically would replace what the district would have received if the inside millage shift is not allowed.

“I just want to be status quo, and if we get both, that is awesome for us,” she said. “I think it would be really helpful. We need that; we do need it.”

“I think it’s really wise,” Stocker said. “I think you’re right.”

Hoynes agreed, but added, “There are so many unknowns.”

Commission members then voted unanimously to approve the board’s action to submit both levy requests to the county elections board.

The Rest of the ‘Big Picture’

The fifth, sixth and seventh items on Grassi’s five-year plan are, respectively, passage of a permanent improvement levy in November 2015, a bond levy in November 2016 and reversion of the millage shift in 2020.

“I’m getting a little aggressive when you get to five,” she said. “We don’t have a permanent improvement levy in this district and we don’t have any funds put to that, either.

“We have to start thinking about maintaining this building. Our roof needs attention; our ceiling tiles need attention. We just have a lot of things that need attention.”

New buildings and facilities, including a new gym, athletic complex, more classrooms, a community room, cannot be addressed until the first five items are completed, she added.

“We have to shore up our own financial base. We have to fix the building that we have,” Grassi said. “Once you do all that, and you’ve shown the commitment to all those things to the general public, if you have committed to that, now we can talk about facility.”

A bond levy would allow district officials to give the community what it wants, she added.

And then, around 2020, any unvoted property tax increase would be eliminated as the district’s debt is paid off.

“I think people need to see that I am looking at six years from now,” Grassi said. “And if you look at some of the things that are going on here, we’ve got the Chromebooks, we’ve got the library, we have the fact that they have approved the millage shift, we have done some outside of the box things and people have been OK with that, and we’re working on the plan.”

The next fiscal oversight commission meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 19.

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  1. […] However, she explained her perspective on the district’s future in an earlier story here. […]

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