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Smith County residents speak out against property tax increase

Smith County residents spoke out at a public hearing on Tuesday, asking the government not to raise their property taxes.

Five people addressed the Smith County Commissioners Court at the first of two public hearings about a proposed hike in the tax rate.

The Commissioners Court has proposed raising the tax rate from 33.7311 cents per $100 of property valuation to 34.5 cents.

“Since the county employees had a good raise last year, perhaps we could go with a lesser one, like the one that is given to Social Security,” said Maryanne Aiken, 78 of Flint.

Aiken praised Commissioner Terry Phillips, who was the only member of the Commissioners Court who voted against the proposed increase. She also asked for additional public hearings.

Craig Licciardi of Grassroots America-We the People Political Action Committee read a statement in opposition from executive director Joann Fleming. She released the statement later in the day.

“Many cities and counties are rushing to raise taxes this year before the new law goes into effect to limit the amount local government can raise taxes without taxpayer approval,” the statement said. “We are disappointed that Smith County is no different.”

Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law in June, which allows citizens to petition for a tax election if cities and counties seek to increase revenue by more than 3.5 percent in a year. The law takes effect Jan. 1.

Fleming’s statement also took issue with the county’s historically high level of reserves, a portion of the county budget that is similar to a savings account.

“Grassroots America does not support the county overtaxing the people in order to carry surplus funds well above reserve fund policy,” the statement said.

“(Fleming) asked for a written policy to redirect surplus reserve funds to pay cash for capital road improvements and vehicles for the sheriff’s office to no avail,” the statement said.

“Since another year has gone by without a policy that actually dedicates surplus reserves to a capital asset purpose, you once again plan to overtax the citizens of Smith County,” the statement said.

During budget hearings, County Judge Nathaniel Moran has said he prefers to use property tax revenue, a recurring revenue source, to pay for recurring expenses, and reserve balances to pay for one-time spending.

Allen Martin, who spoke for himself, repeated the theme of raising taxes in advance of a state law limiting how much cities and counties can raise taxes without potentially triggering a tax election.

“You’re beating the cap on the taxation that everybody in the state has supported,” Martin said. “We’ve got lots of evidence throughout the state.”

Rudy Wright, of Tyler, compared paying property taxes to paying rent to the government.

“I believe we should be able to own our property and we can never consider owning our property if we are constantly renting it from the state,” Wright said.

“I’m willing to stand up and be brave just like Mr. Phillips was willing to stand up and be brave,” Wright said.

Richard Blake, 68, of Tyler, spoke about taxes and general government.

“In my opinion, this proposed tax rate is not about so much the amount so much as it is an increase,” Blake said.

“This is a microcosm of my federal government, increasing the size and scope of the government,” he said.

The Commissioners Court did not comment on the specific concerns that people brought up, but Moran said their comments are welcome.

Another hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Tuesday in the Smith County Courthouse Annex, at the beginning of the next Commissioners Court meeting.

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Local
Tyler Paper wins Corporate Spelling Bee in cause for funding literacy programs

After more than an hour of people failing to spell impossibly long and complicated words, the Literacy Council of Tyler’s 28th annual Corporate Spelling Bee came down to a five-letter word.

The final teams were the Tyler Morning Telegraph/tylerpaper.com and Ingersoll Rand/Trane.

The teams took turns spelling words incorrectly for several minutes when Ingersoll missed a word and the newspaper team of Brandon Ogden and Erin Mansfield spelled it correctly. That meant if the newspaper team spelled the next word correctly, it would win.

“Breve,” called out Mike Starr, an attorney who served as the official pronouncer.

He gave the definition of the word as a written or printed mark indicating a short or unstressed vowel.

Ogden, a sports writer for the company that puts out news on print and digital platforms, then walked to the front of the stage at Green Acres Baptist Church’s CrossWalk Conference Center.

With only a hint of doubt, he spoke into the microphone: “b-r-e-v-e.”

The competition on Tuesday produced a winner but was really about having fun and raising money for Literacy Council of Tyler. In the days before the bee, Literacy Council of Tyler Executive Director Nancy Crawford, who served as the master of ceremonies in a bumblebee outfit, said the event would raise at least $60,000.

Crawford told the large, often boisterous crowd that the council uses the money to provide literacy, GED and college preparation courses free to those who need them.

Before the competition began, the council played a video in which Maggie Hill told of using the council’s services first to earn her GED and then much later in life to prepare for classes at Tyler Junior College.

In the video, Hill said she became sick while in high school and ended up not earning a diploma. She said her mother encouraged her to take the GED course at LCOT.

She said she again found herself in need of LCOT’s services after she had two children and divorced.

“I was at a standstill,” she said of her life at the time.”I was lost.”

She took LCOT’s college preparation course and said it helped give her life direction.

Hill earned a degree from TJC and is now a student at the University of Texas at Tyler.

Crawford said LCOT often changes the lives of its students.

This year, 12 organizations provided two-person teams to compete in the bee.

The theme was games, and among the games represented by the teams were Twister, Monopoly, Candy Land and Scrabble. Many competitors and members of the crowd came dressed as characters from these and other games.

Those in attendance cheered wildly when a representative of their team spelled a word correctly and were generous with applause when someone failed to spell a word right.

With each round, the words became more difficult. Among the words this year were avocet, oneiric and banausic.

The Ingersoll Rand/Trane supporters were selected as having the best costumes and the spirit award went to Prothro Welhelmi & Co.

The bee’s title sponsors were Michelle and B. Tim Brookshire and the Tyler Morning Telegraph.


Local
Tyler ISD budgets for teacher raises of $2,500 to $4,000 and lower tax rate

Based on a first look at the 2019-20 budget, Tyler Independent School District will be accomplishing several of its long-term goals with the extra funding coming from changes to school finance in the state, including $6 million to fund salary increases for all employees.

The Tyler ISD Board of Trustees took a look at the Proposed General Fund Budget for the 2019-20 school year during its monthly workshop meeting on Tuesday.

Tyler ISD, the region’s largest school district, will go into the new school year with a budget of more than $163 million, which includes a net funding increase of about $10.8 million. That increase comes from a boost in state funding and healthy property tax growth in the district.

As part of a tax swap compromise, the Texas Legislature agreed to increase its portion of school funding, while compressing property tax rates. The district’s maintenance and operation tax rate will drop from $1.04 per $100 of taxable value to 97 cents, with the district’s total tax rate falling from $1.405 per $100 of taxable value to $1.335. That figure includes the district’s interest and sinking rate, which is the portion taxpayers vote to raise during bond elections.

District Chief Financial Officer Tosha Bjork estimates the district will see a net increase of about 4.4 percent in taxable value across their taxable area, which covers the city of Tyler and large portions of Smith County.

How much of a difference it makes in individual tax bills depends on whether a home went up or down in value. The state also changed the levy from prior-year values to current-year values.

The state’s portion of funding will now comprise about 39.2 percent of the district’s budget and the local portion will account for 58.9 percent, which is a shift of 4-5 percent from the previous year.

While the actual state funding increase is $11.725 million, it is offset by a loss of $1.8 million due to the property tax compression.

The net increase in funds should allow the district to make up ground on priorities board members have made a focus over the past few years, including teacher pay, expanded summer learning and districtwide full-day pre-K.

Lawmakers mandated that 30% of the increase in state funding must go to teacher pay, which many districts are using for raises or to bring salaries up to new state minimum pay standards.

The district plans to spend $6 million on salary increases for all employees.

Starting teacher pay will increase from $42,000 to $44,250 and teachers with between one and five years of experience will see $2,500 raises. Teachers with six to 20 years of experience will receive $4,000 raises and teachers with more than 20 years will see $3,000 raises. For the past few years the district has spent about $3 million annually on $1,500 across-the-board teacher raises.

Administrative and professional staff will see 4% increases in salary, and annualized hourly staff and manual trades will see 6% raises.

Minimum and maximum pay for those positions also will be increased. The district will also try to incentivize bus drivers with 6% raises.

Tyler ISD employees will also be keeping far more of their raises than their peers in most school districts across the state thanks to the district’s self-funded health insurance plan. While employees will see a 5% increase in premiums, that is far lower than the state’s TRS health care. For example, a family on Tyler ISD’s Plan B will save $12,600 annually compared with the comparable TRS-AC Select plan. Tyler ISD’s premium hikes are about half the dollar amount of increases when comparing the district’s Plan B to the TRS-AC Select plan. An employee with insurance only for herself would save $4,356 annually compared with the TRS-AC Select plan.

Another big win for the board will come next summer as the partnership with The Mentoring Alliance expands to an additional two campuses, Boulter and Hubbard middle schools. The district will allocate an additional $500,000 to help fund those programs.

The district will also allocate $400,000 toward salaries for additional staff to roll out its full-day pre-K program and spend an additional $110,000 on instructional specialists for early literacy.

Some other areas may see increases with an additional $3 million allocated for state compensatory education funds, but the state has not yet finalized formulas for them. Last year the district used those funds for its alternative schools, hiring interventional specialists, master teachers and other support staff.

The district will hold a public hearing on its budget and tax rate at its Aug. 19 board meeting.