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Levies to make annual appearance on ballots

August 10, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

One of the many questions voters in Berkeley and Jefferson counties will see on their November ballot is whether to continue excess levies that have traditionally been passed for decades.

Each county's excess levy, which generates millions of dollars for local uses, expires next June.

When discussing the levy at recent board of education meetings, school officials in each county stressed that an excess levy is not the same as a bond call.

"A bond is like taking out a loan. It's something we pay for over the years," said Nancy White, treasurer for Jefferson County Schools.

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A levy consists of money each resident pays yearly in taxes.

The state allows a maximum excess levy rate. The Berkeley County Board of Education taxes at 98 percent of that rate, while Jefferson County taxes at 95 percent.

At their meeting Wednesday night, Berkeley board members voted unanimously to continue seeking the same rate.

At 98 percent, Berkeley voters generate $12,787,000 a year for the school system, every penny of which is used locally, said Manny Arvon, Berkeley County Schools superintendent.

Board members debated trying to reach the maximum 100 percent rate - which would have generated another $255,000 a year - but decided against it.

Arvon said he was not willing to risk losing $12 million for the sake of possibly gaining $255,000. Board members agreed, saying they appreciate the support of residents, who recently passed a bond, and do not want to tax them further.

Of the $12 million generated in Berkeley, more than $7 million is used each year to pay salary supplements and benefits to school employees. Around $1.75 million is used to buy instructional materials, including textbooks.

Approximately $160,000 is used to support five community organizations. The Berkeley County Health Department receives $20,000; the county Parks & Recreation office, $60,000; the West Virginia University 4-H Extension Office, $30,000; the Berkeley County Strings Program, $20,000; and PASS - Providing Academic and Self-esteem Support - $30,000.

Nearly $2 million is used to pay the salaries of 72 service workers and 26 professional workers that the state does not pay for. Finally, $1.4 million is used for maintenance.

Excess levies can be imposed for four- or five-year terms, but the Berkeley board decided to keep it at four so the call will coincide with a general election. Holding a special election is costly, board members agreed.

Meanwhile, at the Jefferson County Board of Education meeting this week, members also discussed their excess levy. They did not decide on a draft version, but will have to do so at their next meeting to get it on the November ballot.

Board members there are debating whether to jump to a 100 percent rate, which would generate another $482,000 a year for the school system, said White, Jefferson's treasurer. At 100 percent, voters would generate $9,621,121 every year.

The 5 percent jump would mean the owners of a $100,000 home would pay another $13.80 a year in taxes.

The additional money could be used in part to increase teacher's salaries, since many start in Jefferson but then leave for better-paying jobs in neighboring states, White said.

Jefferson voters have supported the excess levy since 1946, White said. The money in Jefferson is used for many of the same purposes as in Berkeley, along with paying for school nurse services.

Board members in both counties said passing the level is crucial.

"It would be very difficult to operate at the level we operate without it," Arvon said. "This is probably the most important issue we have out there as far as local support."

Should voters in either county reject the levy, it would be brought up again before the end of the fiscal year, school officials said.

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