Sunday, January 26, 2003

Lockland voters face big tax hikes

Independent schools, perhaps water plant at stake

By Sue Kiesewetter
Enquirer contributor

This is the first in a series of stories previewing the Feb. 4 special election.

LOCKLAND - The decisions facing voters in this blue-collar village of 3,707 could change the way their children are educated, and the services provided by their government.

Both the Lockland Board of Education and the Village Council are asking residents on Feb. 4 to raise their taxes a total of 32.6 mills - about $720 on a $75,000 home - for the next five years, with collections beginning in January 2004.

  Residents of seven Greater Cincinnati communities and two villages will go to the polls Feb. 4. Here are the issues:
• Lockland Schools: A 24.1-mill emergency operating levy, expected to raise $2.5 million each of the next five years.
• Lockland Village: An 8.5-mill emergency operating levy, expected to raise $504,000 each of the next five years.
• Norwood Schools: An 8.93-mill bond issue that would provide $54.9 million to replace or repair schools.
• Milford Schools: A 5.9-mill continuing operating levy that would raise $4.7 million annually.
• Batavia Schools: A 5.9-mill bond issue that would provide $18.4 million to build an elementary school.
• Springboro Schools: A single question asking voters to renew a $1.4 million levy and a $600,000 emergency levy, both due to expire at the end of 2003.
• Addyston Village: Doubling of the village income tax to 2 percent; a 2-mill emergency fire levy that would raise $87,864 each of the next five years.
• Mount Healthy Schools: A 6.95-mill continuing operating levy that would raise $2.2 million annually.
• Talawanda Schools: A 2.5-mill bond issue that would provide $19.5 million to build an elementary school.
• St. Bernard/Elmwood Place Schools: Renewal of a five-year, $1 million operating levy.
A 24.1-mill operating levy the schools are proposing would raise $2.5 million each year, enough to end discussions of a possible merger with a neighboring district.

An 8.5-mill levy proposed by the council would bring about $504,000 a year to the village during the same period.

"It's probably not the best situation to have both of them on at the same time,'' said Lockland Schools superintendent Phil Fox, who acknowledged the schools face an uphill battle to win approval.

Publicly, both governing bodies are backing each other, having approved resolutions of support for the other's ballot issue in the past week.

"We wish them well, and we wish ourselves well," said Mayor Jim Brown.

Nevertheless, opposition is mounting among the business community and residents, who say they are being asked to dig too deep.

"There's a whole lot of confusion between the school and the city - and the homeowner is caught in the middle,'' said longtime resident Paul Jordan, who said both the village and schools are using scare tactics.

"This will force us out of our home if it passes. We will leave," Delta Allen said of the school levy.

Jerry Delp, Lockland High Class of '65 and owner of Rapid Delivery, said he doesn't think the schools are getting the results they should for the $11,626 per pupil being spent now. He is more supportive of the village's request.

Test scores are too low, and too few students are graduating (69 percent), he said.

"If we had good results, I wouldn't complain," Mr. Delp said.

Further complicating the issue for business owners, Mr. Delp said, is the recent reappraisal. It raised the value of his Wayne Avenue property by $42,000.Mert Fritsch, Lockland Schools' technology director and a lifelong resident, said the schools are a victim of the economy and thinks village officials aren't being supportive of the schools.

"This is a hefty levy. If this levy fails, we'll have to go to a merger," Ms. Fritsch said.

School income dropped $2 million annually following the 2001 expiration of a five-year emergency levy. That drop, coupled with an unexpected decrease in inventory taxes that General Electric Aircraft Engines and other businesses pay, put the district in a fiscal crisis, Mr. Fox said.

About 52 percent of the district's revenue comes from businesses.

Parent Sandy Harrod, a 1984 graduate, said she is willing to increase her taxes to support the schools because she likes the individualized attention given her daughter and the other 650 students in Hamilton County's smallest school district.

"The opportunities the kids have are more than you'd have at a larger school," Ms. Harrod said. "My daughter's education is worth it."

Personnel costs were cut by $137,000 this year and will be reduced another $175,000 next year, Mr. Fox said. Even so, the district faces a deficit by the end of the next school year.

Cutting $2.5 million from the district's budget would require cutting the staff in half, Mr. Fox said. If the levy fails, the board has said it will discuss at its Feb. 5 meeting merging with another district. Contiguous districts include Cincinnati, Reading, Princeton and Wyoming.

Mayor Brown said revenue is down about $300,000 from two years ago, largely because of the closing of two businesses (Office Depot and Celotex Shingle Mill).

"If this fails, we will make the necessary cuts," the mayor said. "We may have to give up the water plant or charge for garbage. Layoffs are a possibility. But we're not going to go into a fiscal emergency."


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