County Commission member J.D. "Bo" Wilson says his motion Tuesday night to shift six cents on the property tax rate from the school budget into debt service was his own idea, not the result of any secret discussions.
"I said 'we' and I should have said 'I,'" said Wilson, who when asked about the proposal Tuesday night seemed to imply that it had come up through discussion at a committee meeting.
Wilson did admit that he had been at The Coffee Break, across the street from the courthouse, with several other public officials including fellow commissioners Bobby Fox and Joe Tillett.
"If that was a 'secret' meeting," said Wilson, "then we're guilty." He also noted that commissioners often wait in County Mayor Eugene Ray's office before going upstairs to the courtroom for the county commission meeting.
Wilson's six-cent shift in the property tax rate, which was passed Tuesday night without debate or discussion, took the county's finance director and its school superintendent, among others, by surprise. At least one county commissioner claimed later -- off the record -- not to have realized what was being voted on.
The shift will force the school system to cut $438,000 in spending from the budget proposal which had been on the table going into Tuesday night's meeting. School officials had claimed that the budget was already tight and had even considered asking for a tax increase just because the proposed budget has such a small ending fund balance. Now, the school system will have to deal with a cut instead of an increase.
Wilson said Thursday that the budget as submitted by the school system was about that same amount above the "maintenance of effort" target for spending set by the state. He said if the commission had granted that amount this year it would have been bound to give the same amount of funding to the schools next year.
Instead, Wilson said Tuesday night, applying that amount to debt service will help pay down the county's debt and will benefit the school system by allowing it to build a badly-needed new high school at Cascade sooner than it would be able to otherwise. Currently, officials have been saying, the county is at the limit of what it can borrow without new revenue.
The county's debt service fund, which is partly funded by county investment income, has been hurt by low interest rates in the economic downturn.
The school board will meet June 21 to consider what to do about its budget request. The county's Financial Management Committee will meet June 26 and the full commission will meet June 28 to finalize the school budget before the end of the fiscal year on June 30. The new budget is scheduled to take effect July 1.