By October, consultants will submit a plan showing which Lafayette Parish School System buildings need the most attention, but there’s still a lingering question over when voters will be asked to help pay for the multimillion dollar fix-it list.
Talk of property tax increases to pay for the work, as well as for technology upgrades, didn’t gain traction with the board’s Finance Committee this past Thursday, with committee members saying they need more time to review the proposals.
At least $120 million in bonded debt could be available over the next few years if the board supports the committee’s recommendation for the sale — which will be repaid with revenues from existing taxes — to fund two new schools and new classroom wings at two others.
There’s still time for the full board to place a new tax measure on the spring ballot to generate additional revenue to pay for the school system’s facilities needs.
Chief Financial Officer Billy Guidry told committee members that the board would need to make a decision by October on bringing a tax proposal to the public on a spring ballot. Notice of any propositions must be submitted to the state by Nov. 4 for next year’s March 5 election or by Feb. 23 for the April 9 election. The next available ballot after that, unless a special election is called, won’t be until the presidential and congressional primary on Nov. 8, 2016. If the board decides to bring a tax proposal to voters, a place on the fall 2016 ballot delays assessments of any new taxes until 2017, Guidry said.
He presented scenarios that range from a 12-mill increase to 31.5-mill increase, with the caveat that the higher millages are merely an example and not a recommendation.
A 12-mill increase would generate about $314 million over a 20-year period or $389 million over a 30-year period. Annually, the 12-mill increase would generate nearly $22.6 million.
Property taxes haven’t increased in more than 10 years, when voters approved millage increases to support new libraries and raises for police and firefighters, said Conrad Comeaux, Lafayette Parish tax assessor.
The current millage rate for property owners within the parish’s municipalities is 85.02, while it’s 86.55 for those with property outside municipalities, Comeaux said.
The Lafayette Parish School System already gets 39 percent of those property taxes, or 33.56 mills.
Comeaux said property taxes in the parish — particularly those dedicated to support local schools — are low compared to St. Tammany Parish.
“It used to be that St. Tammany paid in taxes to their School Board as much as we pay for everything in this parish,” Comeaux said.
Current millage rates for St. Tammany range from 165.48 to 105.59 — and at least 68.18 mills support schools, according to the St. Tammany Parish Tax Assessor’s Office.
At Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting, Chairman Justin Centanni and members Elroy Broussard and Tehmi Chassion discussed voters’ rejection of the School Board’s last attempt to win financial support from the community to finance school improvements. The proposed 25-mill increase failed with only 31 percent of voters supporting the tax proposition.
The committee members agreed more time is needed to review the millages and to develop a plan to bring to the public based on consultants’ review of facility needs.
Because the School Board would max out its bonding capacity with the sale of the $120 million in bonds, a property tax increase is the best option to generate additional revenue for construction, maintenance and technology upgrades, Guidry told the committee. He said a sales tax increase isn’t feasible because some municipalities in the parish are maxed out, or close to it, on sales taxes.
But voters aren’t totally averse to new taxes. Last year, Lafayette Parish voters approved an eight-month, 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for a new terminal and other improvements at Lafayette Regional Airport. The tax collection started in April and will end in November, with an estimated $37 million in revenues expected.
Meanwhile, an increase in the bonded debt should get the ball rolling on the new high school. About $66 million of the $120 million bonded debt could be for the initial phase of the high school — though that amount likely would build a high school big enough for only 1,400 students. The board initially approved a school to house 1,750 students.
The school likely would be built in phases, pending funding, district planning administrator Sandra Billeaudeau said during Thursday’s Finance Committee meeting.
The initial phase would involve building a school for 1,400 students, gyms, a cafeteria, library and other common-area buildings with the exception of outdoor athletic facilities, Billeaudeau said.
A second phase would add classrooms for 350 more students in time for August 2018 and the transition of opening classes to 11th-grade students and construction of athletic facilities.
A third phase timed with seniors starting in August 2019 would add classroom space for 250 more students, bringing the school’s capacity to 2,000 students.
“If a tax proposal doesn’t pass, we’d still have a high school, but instead of building for 1,750, we’d build for 1,400,” said board member Jeremy Hidalgo, who chairs the board’s Finance Committee. “If a tax proposal passed next year, we could move forward and do phase one and two of the high school and have what we initially approved — a high school for 1,750 students.”
Follow Marsha Sills on Twitter, @Marsha_Sills.