Firelands board considering income tax for new school

By Evan Goodenow -

Defeats of proposed property tax hikes in the November and March elections have Firelands board of education members considering different payment options for a new $35.7 million middle and high school.

A three-quarters of a percent earned income tax generating $2.1 million annually might go before voters in an Aug. 2 special election.

School board members discussed the option at a March 28 special meeting.

The 23-year tax would be paid by all workers who live in the school distict. Their annual earnings average about $50,000, said Mike Sudsina, general managing partner of Sudsina & Associates, the board’s financial consultant on the project.

Because it would exclude taxing disability, Social Security, and workers’ compensation benefits, the tax could be an easier sell with elderly residents on fixed incomes who board members said have been reluctant to pay more property taxes.

“That is the reason that income taxes are pursued very often, because it’s the folks with kids in the schools who are being asked to pay,” Sudsina said.

Issue 22, a 36-year, 5.2-mill bond issue and 0.5-mill maintenance levy, failed 1,949 votes to 1,494 votes (57 percent to 43 percent) on March 15, according to unofficial results from the Lorain County Board of Elections. The issue would’ve cost the owner of a $100,000 home an additional $204 annually.

The same proposal was defeated 1,873 votes to 1,440 votes (57 percent to 43 percent) in November.

Board members said they empathize with voters’ concerns about higher taxes, but believe the new school is needed to replace the aging South Amherst Middle and Firelands High schools which have cooling and heating and electrical problems and leaks.

Built in 1910, the 81,210-square-foot, 425-student middle school would cost $13.2 million to renovate and nearly $18.8 million to replace, according to Ohio School Facilities Commission estimates. Renovation would cost 70 percent of replacement.

Built in 1954, the 91,400-square-foot, 600-student high school would cost nearly $16.4 million to renovate. It would cost about $22.3 million to replace. Renovation would be 73 percent of the replacement cost.

The state won’t help pay for renovations that cost two-thirds or more of the cost of building new.

If funded, a 135,878-square-foot new school would be located next to the current high school at 10643 Vermilion Rd., Henrietta Township.

It would open in 2020 and house 820 students. The lower number is due to declining enrollment.

State taxpayers would pay $6.2 million of the cost of the new 6-12th grade building, which would include the optional abatement and demolition of the middle school at an estimated $796,000.

Board members would prefer to place a proposal on the November ballot with heavy turnout expected for the presidential election. Heavy turnout traditionally helps school issues rather than a $20,000 August special election when school is out.

However, Firelands will lose the state money if the proposal isn’t passed by August so paying $20,000 for a special election is the only way to meet the deadline.

If they approve putting the proposal on the ballot again, board members have a May 4 deadline to send it to the Lorain County auditor’s office and Lorain County Board of Elections for certification.

Board member Daniel Pycraft said proposing another bond issue would be fruitless. But said extensive voter education on the tax will be needed for passage or “we’ll get blown out of the water.”

Board President Ben Gibson said a new school is more cost-effective than maintaing the two old ones. He said the state share for a new school will likely decrease if the proposal is defeated again.

Gibson noted Firelands taxpayers pay the lowest property taxes of Lorain County’s 15 school districts. The owner of a $100,000 home — the average home in the district is valued at $175,000 — pays $1,600 in property taxes annually.

However, Robert Becker Jr., a South Amherst resident and father of two children in the district, was unconvinced He told board members many taxpayers can’t afford to pay for a new school.

“An income tax isn’t going to change anything because people live like myself paycheck to paycheck,” Becker said. “We’ve spoken twice. You’re just making the voters mad.”

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or GoodenowNews on Twitter.

By Evan Goodenow