By: Charlotte Twine and Mandy Miles

School may be out of session, but the board of the Monroe County School District still found a very important topic to talk about at its July 20 meeting: money. Namely, the 2021-22 school year budget, tax rates and the feasibility of two affordable housing projects.

“We have been fortunate to have a good year last year, and a good budget going forward that is balanced,” said Beverly Anders, executive director of finance & performance for the district.

Approval of the budget will have to go through a few more steps, which include newspaper advertising a tax increase to the public, more meetings with the school board members in August, then a final hearing on Sept. 7.

The total budget for the school is $221.50 million.  The breakdown is as follows: The operating budget is $117.02 million; for food service, $6.28 million; special revenue, $9.95 million; debt service, $16.67 million; capital projects, $54.41 million; internal service, $17.12 million; trust and agency, $500,000.

A millage rate has also been proposed: 3.2840. A “millage rate” is used to calculate local property taxes directed toward the school. A millage rate of 3.2840 means that for every $1,000 a home is worth, the home owner will be taxed $3.2840. The school district depends upon these taxes for its budget.

Anders pointed out that this millage rate is less than last year’s, which was 3.3520. So, the tentative millage rate for fiscal year 2021/22 is 2.03% less than the millage rate for 2020-21.

However, technically, there is a small tax increase. 

Anders explained to Keys Weekly, “We have to calculate the ‘rolled-back rate’ to determine if there is a tax increase. The ‘rolled-back rate’ is the rate that would have provided the same ad valorem tax revenue that was levied the prior year based upon this year’s property values without new construction. When I calculate the rolled-back rate for MCSD, the rate is 3.19872. We are proposing a millage rate of 3.28400.  Since this is larger than the rolled-back-rate, we have to advertise a tax increase.”

Anders also noted that “our property taxes are increasing crazily” due to the Monroe County property appraiser’s valuation. The current year’s gross taxable valuation for all property in the county is $34.2 billion.

While the money coming into the district is good news, Anders warned the board members that the good times will not last.

“​​What does concern me is the property values, which, as we all know, can come back down. That bubble burst has happened. We need to try to maintain a fund balance for if and when that happens. I never thought we’d see such an increase in property values. We don’t know how long that can last.”

Affordable housing

Recent cost projections soured some of the board members on building 20 units of employee housing alongside Sugarloaf School. The developers told the school district it would need to pony up $1.1 million to make the project happen despite the school district providing the land. That money would have to come from the district’s contingency funds, which no one likes to tap.

“I think it’s time to realize that we could better use the property next to Sugarloaf for the school, rather than housing,” chairman John Dick said.

Board member Bobby Highsmith emphasized the continuing and worsening housing crisis and said he’d support spending a million dollars to get housing on Sugarloaf. Mindy Conn said she’d still like to see the Sugarloaf housing happen, but wants to consider combining the Sugarloaf housing project with the 200+ units planned for the school district’s Trumbo Road property in Key West.

“I’ve spoken with builders who have said they’d be more interested in doing the Sugarloaf housing if they could also do Trumbo,” Conn said.

If they can’t be combined, she said, then she’d be in favor of closing out the Sugarloaf contract with Gorman developers.

Meanwhile, the Trumbo Road housing is progressing with support from the city of Key West, Superintendent Theresa Axford told the board. The city will likely ask voters in November to relax the height restrictions for affordable housing at Truman Waterfront. The school district will likely piggyback on that referendum and ask voters to do the same for workforce housing on Trumbo Road.

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