Talk of tax levy, Tort Fund usage leads to debate at Quincy School Board meeting

Posted: Dec. 20, 2012 9:56 am Updated: Jan. 10, 2013 12:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

The Quincy School Board put its stamp of approval on the district's 2012 tax levy Wednesday night.

The levy passed on a 6-0 vote. Jeff Mays was absent. Though Mays participated in the early part of the meeting by a telephone hookup, the phone connection wasn't working at the time the levy vote was taken.

The levy calls for seeking just over $33 million in property taxes. While that's up about $1.3 million from last year's levy, the School District's tax rate is expected to drop to about $4.01 per $100 assessed valuation. The rate was nearly $4.04 this past year.

Despite the lower rate, the district expects to generate more property tax revenue because the district's total equalized assessed valuation is projected to rise by 4.9 percent to an estimated $825 million, according to Joel Murphy, the district's business manager.

Each individual fund within the total levy will get more money next year because of the higher EAV. For example, the Education Fund is expected to receive nearly $15.2 million, an increase of 4.9 percent from the $14.47 million extended to that fund last year.

Projected revenue going to most other funds will rise between 4.3 and 4.9 percent -- with the exception of the Tort Fund, which is expected to increase just 1.75 percent, and the Social Security Fund, which is expected to drop by about 5.9 percent.

The Tort Fund levy for 2012 was set at $2.16 million, up slightly from last year's levy of $2.12 million. The rate had been bumped up to $2.1 million in the 2010 tax year -- more than double the $1 million levied in both 2009 and 2008 when the district was embroiled in a lawsuit challenging the way the tax was being applied.

The Tort Fund levy was raised in 2010 to more accurately reflect the district's actual costs for tort-related expenses as identified in the district's risk management plan, school officials said at that time.

The School Board engaged in a debate over the use of the Tort Fund to pay costs related to risk-management expenses.

Board member Scott Stone cast the only vote against the adoption of the new risk-management plan, which is essentially unchanged. tone said he felt the district shouldn't be using the Tort Fund to pay a portion of the salaries of certain district employees whose duties are related to risk management.

"I object to the subsidization of salaries through the Tort Fund," Stone said. "I don't believe this is the proper use for tort. Tort is for protection against lawsuits, and subsidizing salaries is not protecting us against lawsuits."

Several other board members disagreed, saying they felt the use of the Tort Fund for those purposes was appropriate and supported by court rulings.

"Shame on you for thinking that anyone, including security salaries, are not justified from the Tort Fund," board member Stephanie Erwin said. "That's crazy."

"I'm not saying that," Stone replied.

"You said you don't support the salaries," Erwin countered. "You said no salaries (should be) subsidized."

Board President Bill Daniels said the district doesn't use the full capacity of its risk-management plan to pay all the salaries that it could. He said only about one-fourth of the tort levy that could be spent on salaries goes for that purpose.

"And the vast majority of it is all for the security department," he said. "If there's any group of employees we have in the district who perform risk-management and loss-prevention duties, it is that group."

Daniel's assertion was borne out by figures provided to The Herald-Whig by Murphy showing that the risk-management plan authorizes the district to spend as much as $3.2 million on salaries if the full percentages spelled out in the plan were followed. Instead, he said, only $804,215 is being spent for salaries, with the bulk of that money going to pay security personnel and several other position with risk-management duties.

"I don't think it's subsidizing salaries," board member Steve Krause said. "To me, it makes sense. We have to move away from saying this subsidizes salaries because it's not. It's the percentage of their job that they're doing to implement this decentralized (risk-management) policy is why that percentage of their salaries is being paid out of tort."

Board member Tom Dickerson told how he heard an expert -- during news coverage of the Connecticut school shootings last week --describe three steps that a school system could take to improve their chances of limiting the loss of life in similar situations. One step involved having locked doors at entrances to schools. Another step involved having armed security guards. The third step, he said, was to have "training in risk management techniques for every staff member that encounters students."

Dickerson said this is why it the district appears to be justified in using tort funds to help pay the salaries of people who do risk-management work.

Stone held his ground on the issue.

"I have no objection to the security, the risk management -- all the procedures we have in place to protect the children. I think the most important thing we can do is protect our children," Stone told his fellow board members.

"But this plan we're developing is what I would call a legal maneuver to allow us to use the Tort Fund to pay portions of salaries, and I disagree with that."