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How did that happen?

As other districts eye tax increases, Brookwood slashes burden by 8.5 percent

CRUNCHING NUMBERS Brookwood's 2010-11 property tax revenue — $1.17 million 2010-11 tax rate — $7.11 per $1,000 of equalized value What the owner of a $200,000 district home pays Brookwood — $1,422 Total Brookwood 2010-11 budget — $8.05 million Total Brookwood 2009-10 budget — $8.18 million
November 03, 2010 | 08:50 AM
Genoa City — Fewer jobs and the higher cost of living have people demanding their elected officials cut taxes.

In the Brookwood School District, that's just what they did.

On Oct. 18, the School Board adopted a budget that calls for a tax rate of $7.11 per $1,000 of equalized valuation. That means the owner of a $200,000 home will pay the district $1,422 next year. This year, the tax rate was $7.77.

Brookwood is just one taxing entity. Portions of a district resident's tax bill also go to other school districts, his or her municipality, the state, Walworth County and Gateway Technical College.

As school districts around the state scramble to pinch pennies or ask voters to allow tax increases in an era freely compared to the Great Depression, Brookwood somehow was able to cut the property tax rate by almost 8.5 percent.

On Monday, Brookwood Administrator Bill Lehner explained how.

"There's two main factors here — the low equalized value of property within the district, no lakefront property or commercial, and our low per pupil cost," Lehner said. "One other factor is the change from half-day to full-day kindergarten."

Lehner said the district's equalized value dropped from $311.3 million to $306.94 million. The district valuation involves properties in the village of Genoa City and the town of Bloomfield, minus Genoa City's Tax Incremental Financing district.

"This year, the equalized value dropped in the village," Lehner said.

"Last year, it had dropped in Bloomfield."

He said he believes last year, agricultural properties were devalued.

"This year, it's probably shifted to residential," Lehner said.

Whatever the cause, the result was more state aid to the Brookwood School District, which increased by 8.45 percent — from $4.64 million to $5.03 million "even though many districts, if not most, are seeing decreases in state aid," he said.

"We've been fortunate because our equalized value hasn't grown rapidly," Lehner said.

Another main factor in how Brookwood officials were able to reduce the tax burden for district property owners was changing the kindergarten program to full-day.

"In going from half- to full-day, with half-day, the students only counted 50 percent (in the enrollment counts)," Lehner said. "So, with full-day, we actually gained 30 students."

Although in reality, the numbers didn't rise, "it put us in a better state aid picture," he said. It also allowed the district to increase its revenue by 2.84 percent.

"Actually, right now, our revenue limit decreases at $200 per student," Lehner said. "That's across the state."

Another benefit is the district's per pupil cost, which Lehner said is $9,464 per year. He said although there is "quite a range" across the state, the average cost is about $10,000.

The 'down side'

As district administrator, Lehner spends a great deal of time predicting the future. He said he doesn't limit that to the immediate future.

Although the current budget situation appears to be win-win for district officials and taxpayers, Lehner said it may not last.

"The down side of all of this is the fact that even though we're able to reduce our levy, the revenue limit puts a strain on our district," he said.

The problem is, while the state limits district revenue, certain expenditures increase, including wages and benefits, transportation and utilities.

"All of these things have been increase by 3-1/2 to 4 percent, and the revenue limits only increase by 2 to 2-1/2 percent," Lehner said. "That just puts strains on our programs and districts across the state are facing that problem."

He also said it's not an immediate concern.

"At the present time, we've been able to maintain all our programs, but if this trend continues … eventually, you have to make some of the difficult decisions," Lehner said.

But next year's budget has the district spending more for utilities.

The "operation of plant" line item will increase $36,417 — from $567,807 to $604,224.

Lehner added he hasn't had to cut staff, and with district employees spanning the age spectrum, a slew of retirements in one year isn't in the cards yet.

But with revenue limits as they are now, he said the difficult kind of decisions officials in other school districts across the state are facing could be ones he has to tackle.

"It will become tighter and tighter until some decision has to be made," Lehner said.

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