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great tax debate

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By Mark Cleveland

A few years back, some of our forefathers decided to establish a new country based largely in part to get away from religious persecution. Things seemed to be going fairly well until some of those same fathers started “losing their religion” due to what they perceived to be too much taxing by ol’ King George without receiving something for such taxation. Even though we had a little rebellion against the King, we still, to this day, don’t care too much for the idea of being taxed by anybody. Yet, it is those very taxes, in many instances, that determine the vibrancy of a community, state or nation. Of course, that can work both ways. On Sept. 11 at 6 p.m., the Owen County Board of Education will hold a special meeting at the OCHS auditorium to hear public comment regarding a proposed 4-percent increase in the school tax rate for the upcoming year. By law the board can pass the tax with or without public approval (anything higher than 4% is subject to recall). By law, the board must hold a public hearing if they are going to do anything other than take the compensating rate (the rate which applied to the current year’s assessment of property that produces an amount of revenue approximately equal to that produced in the preceding year). By law, the public can vote the BOE members out of office if they do not like the way their representatives are representing them (something you could not do back in the ol’ King’s day). OK, that is the law, but you also need to understand how agonizing it is for the BOE to make their decision, no matter how they vote. Back in the ’80s (that is 1980s) Owen County was part of the original law suit that brought about sweeping changes to Kentucky Schools commonly known as KERA. The original suit was simply one borne out of financial inequities as it seemed the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. Those school districts that had revenue streams (e.g., businesses that provided a larger tax base) were able to collect even when state revenues were down or non-existent. Conversely, districts like Owen County, which depended largely on state support, were required to exist only on funds provided by the state or generated by local income. We all know the suit was upheld and for awhile funding was much improved. However, the General Assembly has never funded education to the amount that is required by its own laws; and as economic times have become tougher, more and more tax burden has been shifted back to the local effort. So, in many ways, we are right back to where we were before KERA. This brings us back to the meeting on Sept. 11. You need to know how much your board members struggle when they vote to take the 4% or to take the compensating rate. If we were Boone County with a large airport and other businesses to generate additional funds, or even a Carroll County with major industry lined up along the river, it would be much easier, in many ways, to debate the taxation issue. But if our board does not take the 4-percent, then that is revenue that is lost and will never be regained. It is similar to the old Fram oil filter commercial, “You can pay me now or pay me later.” Except this time, the issue is dealing with school children and facilities, not automobiles. I was contacted recently by a fellow superintendent asking me to research some of the discussion that led to the utility tax that was overwhelmingly passed by this community in 1999. In doing so, I talked to people who recalled when the ‘70s adition was added to the old OCHS and how some students actually fell through the floor of the “new” addition due to shoddy workmanship. A large part of the problem was that the Owen County School system got what they paid for. And what they paid for was evidently sub-par because they were doing the absolute best with the limited, local funds they had to work with. Today we have, for the most part, buildings that we can be proud of, a plan for the future, and a community that has supported that plan. Personally, I do not ever want to return to either the days of King George or the days prior to KERA funding. Yet, we still have many improvements that need to be made. We have a “new” high school that we will compare to anyone’s. We will break ground on a new middle school later this year. The board and the facility plan committee have even projected building a second elementary school sometime within the next 20 years. That is called vision, and it is a must if we are going to provide our children with the best opportunity to succeed and provide Owen County with a viable workforce. I have a tough time making a recommendation of 4 percent to the board when times are so tough on many Owen Countians. However, we know that research indicates that the major factor in improving any economy is the education of its citizenry. We also know that providing a quality education comes with a price. I want the best for our students. I want the best for our community. Whatever decision we make in the coming days, rest assured that while it will be agonizing, we will make it with the future of our students and community in mind.