September 21, 2014

Medina
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Cloverleaf combines taxes to sell levy

WESTFIELD TWP. — Voters in the Cloverleaf school district are accustomed to seeing levies on the ballot.

In all four elections held since November 2012, voters have rejected requests for new levies, ranging from 6.9 mills to 8.3 mills.

But in next month’s primary, school officials are taking a new approach aimed at lessening the tax burden on homeowners on fixed incomes by asking for a smaller 3.5-mill property tax levy combined with an additional 0.75 percent earned income tax. Both taxes are for 10 years.

“We understand voter fatigue,” Superintendent Daryl Kubilus said. “That’s why we decided to look at a combined levy.”

Friday was Drive Your Tractor to School day at Cloverleaf High. The annual event celebrates the school district's rural heritage. (DAN POMPILI / GAZETTE)

Friday was Drive Your Tractor to School day at Cloverleaf High. The annual event celebrates the school district’s rural heritage. (DAN POMPILI / GAZETTE)

Kubilus said the district has no choice but to keep asking voters for more money. The state declared Cloverleaf in a fiscal emergency in 2012 and a five-member board was appointed to oversee the district’s finances.

“The oversight board requires us to be on the ballot,” Kubilus said.

The district faces a deficit of $5.8 million by 2017 if new money is not approved.

The proposed 3.5-mill property tax levy would bring in $1.6 million annually and cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $122 per year, according to Medina County Auditor’s Office.

The Rev. David Rittgers, levy campaign chairman, said the reduced levy revenue would be made up by the income tax, which is expected to generate about $3 million annually, according to the Ohio Department of Taxation.

“Families like mine with two incomes can pay that income tax,” Rittgers said. “But those who are on a fixed income don’t have to worry about it.”

The earned income tax would be paid only by those earning wages. Social Security income, child support, investment income and retirement income would not be taxed.

If approved, the combined issue would mean residents would pay a total of 1.25 percent on their earned income because Cloverleaf already has a 0.5 percent earned income tax, which voters approved in November 2006.

Cloverleaf is the only school district in Medina County with an income tax.

The idea of a combined income and property tax levy is fairly new and so far has never succeeded at the polls.

A state law allowing school districts to ask for both taxes in the same ballot initiative went into effect in September 2011.

The first district to attempt a levy was Westerville City Schools in Franklin County in November 2011. The levy failed.

According to election records maintained by the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office, only three other attempts have been made since then for a combined income and property tax levy.

East Knox Local School District in Knox County tried a combined levy and income tax in 2012 and 2013 and failed on both attempts. In May 2013, St. Mary’s City Schools in Auglaize County attempted a combined levy and failed.

Cloverleaf is the only school district in Ohio with a combined levy in the May primary.

“This will be the first time we’ve seen a levy like this in Medina County,” county Auditor Mike Kovack said.

Rittgers said the district had to get creative because the need for more money is so great. Cuts for the 2014-15 school year would include the shortening of the school day, the elimination of art music and physical education from K-6 education, and the elimination of 19 teaching and other staff positions.

“The changes if the levy doesn’t pass this time will have a big impact on students,” Rittgers said. He has two children in the district and expects his third child to enter the district eventually. Even residents who don’t have children should consider the impact a cut to art, music and physical education would have on their property values.

“One of the things you look at when you move to a community is does the school district have something to offer,” he said.

In getting the message out to voters, Rittgers said they’ve encountered some people who aren’t aware of the cuts that have been made so far.

The district has made cuts valued at $7 million, including the elimination of more than 50 teaching and support staff positions. He said people sometimes don’t understand that the new elementary school complex was built almost entirely through sales tax money in the district’s capital fund. Those dollars can’t be used for operating expenses and must be applied only to capital projects.

But despite the dire circumstances, the levy committee and school district officials are making a few promises if the combined levy is successful in May.

The first is the district promises not to ask for new money until at least 2020. Kubilus said the district plans to review expenses at each school year to make sure costs are kept to a minimum.

“We promise to make that commitment,” Kubilus said.

The other promise is the return of high school busing and everyday kindergarten that were cut over the past year to save money. The district also would reopen buildings to outside community groups.

“We’re going to bring back what we can,” Kubilus said. “But it’s only the basics.”

Contact reporter Loren Genson at (330) 721-4063 or lgenson@medina-gazette.com.