Atlanta Public Schools. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com
Photo: Bob Andres/bandres@ajc.com

APS plans budget, pay hikes amid revenue questions

Atlanta Public Schools expects Fulton County residential property values to increase after being frozen at 2016 levels. But school officials are facing major revenue unknowns while creating the budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 . 

The board is scheduled to tentatively adopt the budget May 7 and consider final approval June 4.

In one scenario, the district forecast a $28 million gap -- if Fulton County’s residential digest remains frozen for another year at 2016 levels. In that case, the district would need to use $10 million of its fund balance and make big cuts. 

But in the scenario officials now say is the one on which they will base the budget, local tax revenue would increase by nearly $49 million over the current year, largely because they anticipate Fulton County residential values to be unfrozen. The schools would, therefore, collect more tax revenue. 

In that scenario, officials said the district could fully implement a $12 million compensation proposal that includes a 1 percent increase and a step increase for employees. 

That will help make the district competitive, said Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. 

“Those things matter,” she said during a Thursday budget commission meeting. 

For the current budget year, the district had to pull back on plans to give everyone a raise after Fulton County froze residential property values at 2016 levels. The county did so after homeowners complained about jumps in property assessments. 

The situation required APS to trim its current budget. Teachers ended up receiving raises this school year, but other full-time workers got a one-time $500 payment instead. 

In addition to boosting salaries in its next budget, APS also hopes to add money to its fund balance to help it prepare for fiscal year 2020. 

That’s when the district anticipates losing about $25 million in revenue a year for three years, if voters approve a homestead exemption. That exemption, authorized by the legislators as Senate Bill 485 and awaiting the governor’s signature, increases the base homestead exemption for Atlanta school taxes from $30,000 to $50,000, while requiring homeowners to pay taxes on at least $10,000 in property value. 

Fulton County’s decision to freeze values not only prompted a cash-flow problem for APS this school year but also led the Georgia Department of Revenue to reject the 2017 tax digest. APS and other government entities went to court to obtain a temporary collection order in November to let them send property tax bills. 

The situation is still not resolved. Fulton County will go to court May 30 to defend the decision to hold 2017 residential property values at 2016 levels. 

APS officials said timing for collecting tax revenue for next year’s budget could still be an issue. They have said another temporary collection order may be sought. 

The proposal for APS’ roughly $815 million fiscal year 2019 budget assumes that, given the expected increase in property values, there will be a greater than usual number of taxpayer appeals. 

“The revenue assumptions do assume some cushion. We know if the values do go to 2018 values the percentage of appeals is going to be significantly higher,” said APS chief financial officer, Lisa Bracken.

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