Madison County Treasurer Shelly Burke said this week Ennis school trustees have not leveled with the community regarding property taxes.
Burke said that the district could have been lowering property taxes every year and still funding the school, but it was instead putting millions of dollars into non-voted accounts with the goal of building a school.
Burke blasted a letter Ennis trustees published last week in The Madisonian newspaper implying that she approved the district’s budgets; budgets that for several years put more property tax dollars into adult education than its general operating fund.
And she said she repeatedly questioned the board about its moves to build up the adult education funds and told county and state officials about the practice, but got nowhere.
“They’re not going to come back on me and say I just looked the other way and did nothing,” she said. “It was just all a game to try to go around having a vote for that school.”
Ennis Superintendent Doug Walsh and Marc Glines, board chairman, did not return repeated telephone calls from The Standard this week seeking comment.
At issue is the financing for a $10 million grade school that was recently opened in Ennis. The building was largely paid for with adult education money that had built up over years and did not go to a public vote. The way the school was paid for has sparked a bitter fight in the rural town.
THIS MONTH state Attorney General Steve Bullock issued a final ruling that the use of adult education and transportation money for new school construction was illegal because they had to be used for the purpose for which they were collected.
The disagreement in Madison County comes down to what constitutes a tax hike.
Jim McNally, a school board member, said the trustees stand behind the fact that they did not raise the mills levied for property taxes. And he said their budgets were open and reviewed by county officials.
“We did not increase the mills,” he said. “The commissioners voted and approved each one of those budgets.”
LAST WEEK Ennis board members Glines, McNally, Gary Croy and Mike McKittrick and former member Brett Owens wrote in their letter they were never trying to build the school without public support. And they said the goal was to keep taxes down and not use bonds to pay for the school. The idea to fund the project came from Walsh, they said.
“Mr. Walsh came to the Board with an idea that would allow us to build the school without increasing the number of mills we were asking from the taxpayers,” the letter said. “We were not attempting to bypass the voters; we were trying to build the new school without increasing taxes.”
McNally said Tuesday they did that by keeping property taxes at 92 mills for years before they were eventually dropped, meaning taxes didn’t rise.
But Burke pointed out that while the mills levied remained the same, the school district’s taxable value tripled from 2002-2011. A mill went from generating $18,051 in 2002 to $62,258 by 2011. That was largely because of development at Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski resorts, which accounts for 78 percent of the property taxes paid in the district.
As the property values rose, the number of mills allocated to the adult education and transportation funds rose every year while the mills put toward the general fund were dropped. By 2007, the district was putting more money into both of those funds than its general fund, which pays for teacher salaries and other operations.
“The school was built without any increase in taxes,” the board members’ letter said.
IT ALSO SAID taxpayers saved $2 million in interest on bonds over 20 years. And they noted that in recent years, the district has dropped its total mill levy to 50 mills.
But Burke said to claim that millions of new dollars in tax revenue for all those years isn’t a tax increase is “absurd” because they could have been cutting taxes and still funding the school. She said $10 million in revenue doesn’t just show up.
“If you need the same amount of money, obviously you’re going to lower the amount of mills,” she said. “It’s not rocket science.”
And she said the assertion that this was a new idea by Walsh is ridiculous because he was steadily building up the non-voted funds. The goal was to build the school by taxing Big Sky.
“Where do they think the money came from to build that school? They never had that money before,” she said. “It becomes very clear and very obvious.”
THE BOARD members said in their letter that development was a big part of the increased taxable value. They were also pulling money from a variety of sources, including from a talc mine and building reserve levies, but the new development was the biggest source.
“At that time about 70 percent of every dollar the district received was coming from these developments and changing state tax valuations,” the letter said.
But Burke said that doesn’t change what the taxes were ostensibly levied for — adult education. She questioned Walsh about their adult education program and said they couldn’t provide a curriculum.
She said it’s silly to argue that they needed millions of dollars in tax revenue when they offered a handful of classes.
“They shouldn’t have been (taxing) anything,” she said. “It’s just absolutely absurd.”