Posted 11/24/15 (Tue)
By Kevin Killough
A miscalculation on tax statements will cost school districts in Williams County over a half million dollars combined. And options to rectify the situation, at least for the current school year, appear to be limited.
According to County Auditor Beth Innis, the county sent out tax statements last December containing a “calculation error,” which led to the county not collecting enough money to cover budget requests for the 2014-2015 school year.
Unfortunately, the mistake wasn’t realized until the end of the fiscal year, and by that time it was too late.
“We’re talking months after the fact,” Innis said.
Last June, as the district was finishing out its fiscal year, Nesson Superintendent Ben Schafer noticed the county allocations were short by about 12 percent of the budget request for the coming school year.
Schafer emailed Innis asking what happened.
Schafer said Innis wouldn’t discuss the matter over email. But when Schafer discussed it with her on the phone, she told him the options were limited.
“I said ‘I’m very sorry. If there was something I can do, I would,” Innis said.
The Nesson District requested $929,675, which is 12 percent higher than the amount requested the previous fiscal year. This is the highest amount allowable by law.
The county issued an allocation of $830,067.
The mistake also impacted Tioga Public School District, but they were only levied about $28,000 less than requested.
District 8 received about $400,000 less than their budget request for the school year.
Grenora and Trenton school districts also had their budget requests cut short as a result of the mistake.
Grenora Superintendent Troy Walters said his district received about $85,000 less than they requested, and the loss will have an important impact.
“When you are a district the size of Grenora, you have to watch your pennies,” he said. “All of this impacts kids the most.”
Since they reside in a hub, Williston schools use a different system and were not impacted by the error.
Innis said the calculation error has been rectified and will not show up on future tax statements, so approved budget requests will be met in future years.
That may not resolve the issue for superintendents and school boards of the impacted districts, however.
“The superintendents are getting together to see what can be done,” Walters said.
Schafer said the Nesson District is also exploring options to meet budget requests for this school year.
“Our board is in agreement that something should be done,” Schafer said.
Schafer said the Nesson District has hired legal counsel to assist with the issue, and Schafer said their attorney is planning to issue a writ of mandamus, which will compel the county to release the funds to the district.
The Tioga school district is also coordinating with the impacted schools.
Tioga Superintendent Carolyn Eide said even though Tioga didn’t get hit as hard by the mistake, she and the school board agreed it is best to coordinate efforts.
“In the future, it could be us,” Eide said.
They’ve also turned to the state to help, but Sen. David Rust (R-Tioga) said there may not be a whole lot the legislature can do since it’s a county issue.
There may be options in the next biennium session to see about emergency funding, Rust said, but that will be a long ways off.
He said he’s looking into the situation, and it may be possible for the state to “exert influence” on the county to find a solution.
But ultimately, it’s the county’s taxes and they make the call.
Schafer said he’s concerned for how the reduced levies this year will impact future revenues for the school if the levies don’t reflect the budget requests.
State law permits districts a 12 percent increase over the previous year’s request or up to 60 mills on its levy, whichever is less.
If levies are short, then the districts impacted by the county’s mistake may only be able to request a 12 percent increase over the incorrect levy they received this year. That will put them in a “negative revenue” situation, Schafer said.
Even if the county were to add the losses to future tax statements, property owners would take a significant hit in December. This would be added onto valuations that have been “skyrocketing” for several years now, Schafer said.
Innis said she greatly regrets the error and wishes there was more she could do for the impacted districts.
“I take my job very seriously, and I don’t make mistakes on purpose,” she said.
Innis said a similar error occurred in the mid-1990s regarding levies for park districts. In that case the error was caught within a couple weeks of the first tax statements being sent out. They were then able to send out corrected statements with an apology for the inconvenience.