Some Halifax residents could see property tax increase

More than 21,000 voters living within the Halifax County Schools district could go to the polls next week to decide on a property tax increase that would help boost local funding for the school system.

Posted Updated

HALIFAX, N.C. — More than 21,000 voters living within the Halifax County Schools district have a chance to vote could go to the polls next week on a property tax increase that would help boost local funding for the school system.

The school system currently spends $879.82 in local funding per student to help operate the schools. The proposed supplemental education tax – 19 cents per $100 valuation on property – would increase the school's operating budget from $44.9 million to $48.5 million, raising the local per-pupil expenditure to $1,889.28, which is closer to the state average of $1,902.04.

Although that is the proposal for the school district, voters will only decide on whether there should be a property tax increase. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners ultimately will decide how much it should be.

If approved, it would go into effect in July.

"It's very important that voters understand that we cannot pay the light bill (and) water bill with state and federal funds," said Halifax County Schools Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lynch Hunter. "We have to depend on the local funds for that."

The school system, which serves more than 3,600 students, has had to make cuts to its budget in recent years.

For example, last year, it employed 10 maintenance workers to cover its 11 schools. For the 2011-12 budget, it had to cut those positions to three maintenance workers for the entire district.

The lack of funding has also had an effect on the teacher turnover rate, which is more than double the state average in elementary and high schools.

Two of the three other school systems in Halifax County – Roanoke Rapids Graded School District and Weldon City Schools – already have supplemental taxes that help pay to keep schools operating.

But some taxpayers are concerned about providing additional funding for the school system, which, in recent years, has come under state scrutiny because of how the district has handled money.

Roanoke Rapids Mayor Emery Doughtie is one of those who is concerned.

Although he lives in another school district in the county, he also owns property that sits within the Halifax schools district.

"We don't feel like additional dollars are warranted at this time," Doughtie said.

He worries that the school system can't be trusted to handle the additional funding appropriately because of past spending issues.

An audit of the school system's finances in 2007 found that the district's finance team did not spend funds properly and ended up owing the state nearly $1 million. In the wake of the discovery, the district fired its finance director and sought financial guidance from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Doughtie said that he is also concerned about how the higher tax rate could potentially keep businesses from coming to the county.

But proponents of the supplemental tax say it would not necessarily affect businesses because incentives to bring jobs to the county are possible.

Residents are also unhappy about the proposed increase.

Maurice Tipton, who moved with his wife in August from Rocky Mount to Littleton, says it would increase his taxes on 187 acres of land from $2,200 a year to at least $2,700.

"We moved out here to try to get away from the high taxes," he said.