MOUNDSVILLE - Marshall County Assessor Chris Kessler is alleging that Marshall County Schools officials pulled "the old bait and switch" by choosing to keep the district's levy rate at 98 percent for the 2013 tax year. However, district officials stood by their numbers and reasoning for keeping the rate the same.
Kessler, responding to comments made by Marshall County Schools Superintendent Fred Renzella and published in the March 24 Sunday News-Register, said Renzella's claims about the levy rate and its effect on the average Marshall County taxpayer are "simply inaccurate."
The school district will bring in an additional $5.7 million in taxpayer funding this coming fiscal year by keeping the levy rate at 98 percent. The extra money comes from a $605 million increase in the county's assessed property value, which are figures based on evaluations by Kessler's office. The $5.7 million increase could bolster the county school system's budget to about $57 million.
A number of community members had urged the board to lower the levy rate. But board members, following a long meeting behind closed doors, decided to leave the rate at 98 percent.
What's at issue for Kessler is Renzella's comment that the real savings in lowering the rate would have been seen by gas, oil and coal companies. Renzella said the average person would have seen little to no deduction in taxes if the board were to lower its rate, a claim Kessler said is false.
"Whether you are a home and vehicle owner, a small business owner, own rental property or mineral interests or are a mid-to-large size commercial operation in the county, a reduction in the rates would be beneficial," Kessler said. "It could save you $50 to $100 to several hundred or thousands of dollars on your property tax bill this year. I don't think that is insignificant and it is insulting to all property owners of Marshall County who could benefit to make such a statement."
Renzella had said those big businesses that stood to benefit from the levy rate reduction had not voiced concerns to the board of education regarding the rates, a claim Kessler said while possibly true, is easily explained.
"When residents receive their tax bills each August, they don't line up at the board offices on Fourth Street, they come to the assessor's office," Kessler said. "I certainly am not complaining about that, because that is part of my job, but I have spoken with thousands of taxpayers through the years who have vented frustrations and voiced concerns with the school board's levy rate decisions. To pretend that there isn't disappointment and frustration with their actions is comical."
Kessler also took issue with Renzella's statement that voters chose to continue the county's excess levy at 98 percent, stating the ballot did not define the levy as such. Marshall County voters in December had agreed to continue a five-year, $83.5 million excess levy for the schools.
"There was not one statement on that election levy ballot that asked for voter approval for the rate to be set at 98 percent," Kessler said. "What was plainly stated was that the school board needed $16.7 million annually for five years to carry out its purposes. To basically bait the voters of the county by presenting a false hope of possible reductions in the rate if the excess levy was approved, and then switching back to the current rate, even though total assessed values have increased by nearly $1 billion over the past two years, is disingenuous at best."
Kessler also pointed to the Marshall County Commission, which last week lowered the county's levy rate by 11.1 percent, as an example of what the school board could do to help taxpayers.
"If (the school board) had reduced the levy to 85 percent, the board still would have received $3 million more than asked for on the ballot and $2.5 million more than received in the current fiscal year," Kessler said. "Also, don't forget, the board already received $3 million more during this fiscal year than it did in the 2011-12 year when total values increased by $335 million."
During the next few years, Kessler said he expects assessed values to continue to increase, though not by such large amounts. Regardless, he said he will continue to call on the board to provide tax relief through the lowering of the levy rate.
"I adhere to the philosophy that a rising tide should lift all boats, but through its recent actions, the school board administration seems to care about only its own," he said. "They may need to be careful, however, that when asking for more taxpayer money in the future, the boat they're on might just be the Titanic."
However, Renzella and board of education Vice President Lori Kestner said the district is simply taking advantage of the large amount of money coming into the county to finish projects that have been targeted for several years.
"This is an opportunity to finalize those projects and get it done," Kestner said. She, along with Board President Roger Lewicki and board members Tom Gilbert and Beth Phillips voted to keep the levy rate at 98 percent, with board member John Miller voting against the issue.
In addition to finishing outstanding projects, Kestner said budget cuts on the state and federal level are "for real" and the district is bracing to ensure programs can continue for students who rely on them.
"Do we have enough to do the minimum? Absolutely," said Kestner, who also serves on the state education executive board. "We want to be able to do more than that and not have to cut vital programs that help students achieve."
Meanwhile, Renzella said he is unsure as to why Kessler has chosen to take aim at the district and how it operates. He said he stands by his numbers, and said if those numbers are wrong, Kessler should present that information to the board and voters - in an open meeting.
"Our county has always been unified when it comes to education," he said. "For some reason, the assessor is attempting to impact how we budget and spend money to meet the needs of students, and he wasn't elected to do that. His office does a tremendous job, but I would never think of making comments about how he does his job. If I had an issue, I'd go see him. We're not trying to lead anyone on, and we would do whatever we can to assist him to gain understanding of what we do and how we operate."
Kestner said the board would be open to holding a meeting for residents of the county to explain the budget, which will be finalized and available for review at the board office next month. She said if the board is giving incorrect information, Kessler should inform them and provide guidance.
"If we're wrong, shame on us, but come explain it to us publicly," she said.