Hard conservatives’ tax plan has local government, school officials on edge
by Dennis Sharkey
Ask anyone in Jefferson County government or any of the school districts about Gov. Sam Brownback’s tax plan and nearly the same response is always given. They are concerned.
Jefferson County Commissioners, all Republicans, have not always agreed in the past on how and where to spend county tax dollars.
However, all three agree that the actions of the legislature the last two years is headed in the wrong direction.
Chairman Richard Malm spent a couple of the final days of the wrap up session in Topeka this year lobbying against a few bills.
“A lot of crazy stuff is happening there,” Malm said. “Right now there’s a lot of ifs.”
One bill in particular actually was passed out of the House but was stalled in the Senate that would eliminate a large portion of personal property taxes. Malm said the bill would only allow counties and cities to assess valuation to the walls, ceiling and floors of a building. Things inside such as fixtures and lights would not be included when assessing a value to a building.
“How does a building function without them,” Malm said. “It’s got a lot of legs to it.”
One version of the bill would have retroactively refunded taxes back to 2006 leaving counties and cities scrambling to find money. He is worried because the legislature has ordered an interim committee to study the issue.
Malm also pointed to a bill and lawsuit dealing with tax abatements. He said even if nothing is done it could still affect the way the county approaches a big project that would require tax abatements. No longer would the days of a 100 percent abatement apply which could affect development.
What the legislature does with taxes could have a drastic affect on county property taxes and school taxes Malm believes. He pointed to a study from the Kansas Association of Counties that said if the bill dealing with property taxes ever becomes law it could lower property values county wide by 30 percent.
He said if the bill went into effect it would have a drastic effect on the standard 20 mills the state sets for local school districts. Malm said that argument has been made to legislators several times but has fallen on deaf ears.
“The legislators don’t even listen to us when we talk about that side of the argument,” Malm said.
They are not alone when sharing their concerns. Some private citizens are seeking office because of concern.
Two years ago retired Oskaloosa teacher Ron Ellis was helping make arrangements for a pizza party to welcome then U.S. Sen. Brownback to Oskaloosa for his campaign for governor. Ellis stood out on Washington Street cell phone in hand updating those waiting with Brownback’s whereabouts.
Fast forward to 2012 and Ellis is now making a run at the Kansas Senate. Ellis attributes his concerns about the tax plan and how education is going to be funded and affected in the near future.
This year the legislature is putting back $58 per student to the base state aid formula. Ellis’ former boss, Oskaloosa USD 341 Superintendent Jon Pfau, estimated a few weeks ago that the raise could mean an additional $30,000 for his district’s budget. But no one on his board is looking to add to the spending.
In 2008 the base state aid per pupil was more than $4,400. This year the base state aid per pupil is at $3,780.
Pfau said the additional monies will probably be absorbed into the budget because of cost of living increases in just about every category but also said it is a positive sign.
“Everything continues to go up slightly,” Pfau said. “Just seeing the train stop was good.”
Jefferson County North USD 339 Superintendent Denise Jennings presides over a district that is in the bottom 10 in the state of Kansas in assessed valuation. JCN has a little more than $15 million in assessed valuation for the 2012 fiscal year.
Jennings agrees with Pfau that cost of living increases are a big part. She pointed to new Federal guidelines for food service that call for more fresh fruits and vegetables for students. She said that drives up her district’s food costs.
“A $58 increase is a trickle back into the bucket again,” Jennings said.
Unlike Oskaloosa, JCN is going to restore some of the cuts that have been made the past three school years. The district has about 45 students entering the first grade but only two classes so a third will be added.
“We’re going to try to make class size more appropriate,” Jennings said.
In Valley Falls cuts from two years ago are being restored only with a different approach.
Valley Falls USD 338 Superintendent Loren Feldkamp said his district has added back an assistant principal. Two years ago Jacques Molleker retired as high school principal and his position was absorbed.
Also an aid for the music department was added. Feldkamp said in both cases the workload was too much.
“It proved to be just too much,” Feldkamp said.
Feldkamp said he and several other superintendents recently met with Kansas Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton, about education funding. He said he came away from the meeting believing that those on the far right of the Republican party don’t share the same views as most educators and moderate Republicans such as Morris.
“It’s really a little civil war within Kansas,” Feldkamp said. “You have your very conservative people looking at the tax plan in a completely different way than most people look at.”
After the conversation he also believes there will be a strong push from moderates to repeal the tax plan next year.
Feldkamp said he and his fellow educators have great concerns about Brownback’s income tax plan that was approved this year. He is skeptical that the plan will create middle income jobs although he said many low paying jobs such as in fast food and retail could be created.
“I’m doubtful that we can create the number of jobs that will bring in that kind of a tax increase,” Feldkamp said. “Those kinds of jobs are not going to create the kind of tax base we need.”
Feldkamp said most of his colleagues believe that schools will be fine this year but to watch out come next spring.
“I would hate to think about going back to where we were two or three years ago,” he said.
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