Lindbergh’s Taxpayers Task Force will meet for fourth time today

Lanane discusses philosophy of board; also fund balances

By MIKE ANTHONY

A Lindbergh School District task force charged with developing proposals that will benefit taxpayers — particularly those on fixed incomes — without financially damaging the district will meet today — Dec. 13.

The fourth meeting of Lindbergh’s Taxpayers Task Force will take place at 10 a.m. in the boardroom of the Administration Building, 4900 S. Lindbergh Blvd.

When the Board of Education established the district’s tax rate for the current school year in August, Assistant Superintendent for Finance Pat Lanane announced the Taxpayers Task Force would be formed.

“… I want to take on this whole issue of how can we co-exist really with the people on fixed incomes …,” he said at the board’s Aug. 28 meeting. “They’ve lived here in this school district for 20, 30, 40 years. When they bought their homes here, they were relatively inexpensive and not valued all that highly in comparison to other parts of St. Louis County.

“During that 20, 30, 40 years, these properties have just exploded in value and be-cause of the valuation, so have their property taxes. And so we need to find a way that we can find some relief for them.

“Most of the people tell us how proud they are of the district, but they are just strapped when it comes to finding revenue to pay for increased taxes. So we think there’s a way to do this. We think there’s some ideas and then at that point once we can come up with kind of a big idea, we want to involve our local legislators and invite them to listen to what we have to say in terms of a solution …,” Lanane added.

At a meeting of the Taxpayers Task Force last week, Lanane told the 15 participants, “… For those people who have not been able to attend the previous meetings, we’ve done quite a bit of talking and discussing about what the concerns are, what the actual effect has been on taxpayers on the increases due to the recent reassessment …

“We’ve also looked at what property tax does for/to the school district. There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever that we are heavily dependent upon it — and really not so much of our own doing. There’s nothing where we said: ‘Hey, you know, we think of all the possible revenue sources, let’s go after this property tax.’ No. That’s not the way it is. It’s a system imposed on us that holds Lindbergh as a hold-harmless school district and basically says: ‘No, you’re not going to receive some money from the state. You’re going to have to get it from your local constituency.

“We don’t think that’s fair. There’s a lawsuit under way right now. We’re a part of that. We think that in a sense by doing this, we represent you all because we think most of you would also agree that state tax money needs to come back to this school district, and to the extent it does, we should reduce property-tax reliance in this school district,” he said.

Lanane, who also serves as the district’s chief financial officer, also discussed the Board of Education’s longstanding policy of taking only what revenue is needed.

For example, from the 1994-1995 school year through the 2000-2001 school year, the Board of Education maintained the operating tax rate at $2.42, rolling back 36 cents each year and leaving $25 million in taxes uncollected. The board continued to roll back the operating tax rate in smaller amounts from 2001-2002 through 2004-2005, saving taxpayers an additional $6 million, bringing the total left uncollected to more than $31 million.

“… The history here has been very pro in terms of trying to take only what we need. So that’s a piece of information I’m not sure I talked about before,” Lanane said.

The chief financial officer also discussed the operating budget’s fund balance, which totaled $26,316,005 on July 1.

But Lanane was quick to note that a majority of that money is already committed and cannot be spent.

“… If you just look at that number, most thinking people would say: “Well, that’s too much.’ And so I want to do a little bit of work on this and let you understand what’s really involved what that number,” he said. “There are lot of pieces of this number that we couldn’t spend even if we wanted to. And almost in some cases, while it’s our money, it’s not really our money.

“So I want to do just a little bit of explanation on that because one of the recommendations that I’m going to put forward is that a balance, a balance amount be established and that it not be exceeded,” Lanane said. “In other words, we shouldn’t continue to grow balances. That’s something that I don’t think should happen, and once you get to a point where you have enough and that’s always been the philosophy here: ‘Ask for what you need. Don’t go above that.”’

He later added, “… One of the primary things, I’m just going to tell you what the board’s philosophy has been on balances is to always have enough in that balance to meet cash flow. In other words, be sure you got enough that you don’t have to borrow money. And for last year, we needed to have a minimum of $9.3 million in the bank. Without that, we would have to be going to the bank and taking out a loan until the taxes came in in January.

“And so they have said: ‘Don’t borrow money’ and I can’t disagree with that because then the taxpayers are funding interest costs, which I have to believe on an operational basis, no one thinks is a good idea …”

Of the operating fund balance totaling $26,316,005 on July 1, only $5,565,019 is considered “board-available resources,” Lanane told the Taxpayers Task Force.

The remainder of that balance is committed, including $1,135,059 in club and activity funds, $425,296 for accrued taxes, $267,558 in pending workers’ compensation claims and $10,012,449 to meet cash-flow needs.

Of the remaining $14,475,643, $1.25 million is in a restricted property fund, $1 million is an emergency fund, $2,279,034 will fund deficit spending in the current budget, $3.5 million is needed to maintain the district’s Aa2 bond rating and $881,590 is designated for board-approved special projects, including the recently completed renovation of Lindbergh High School’s Gymnasium 2.

That leaves roughly $5.5 million available to the board, Lanane said, adding, “There are some things out there — capital projects that our board will look at and eventually they’ll spend that and we’ll get that balance to a number where we say: ‘OK, if we need any of these other things, we’ll have to go somewhere else.’ So it’s really a two-sided sword here. On one hand, you want a balance. The other thing … we project that this year we’re going to make about $1.6 million in interest because all this money while it’s there, we have it invested. And so that’s $1.6 million that no one in this room had to pay one penny of and it goes directly into operations. That’s money that we do spend in operations.

“So that actually kind of takes the burden off the taxpayer a little bit and my point has always been these districts should have a larger balance and it should be enough to do some of the things we’re doing here and generate a little bit of money with that. That’s significant money at $1.6 million …”