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Property owners, school systems may get a break

Property owners in Harrison County will get a break on tax bills next year, if all goes according to plan.
The Harrison County Board of Commissioners approved Monday inter-local agreements with each of the three public school corporations: they will receive $3.5 million between them to reduce next year’s debt service rate by $1.25. All three school boards are expected to agree to the terms and return the signed contracts before Nov. 19.
That’s when the commissioners will meet again, and that’s when they’re expected to OK the checks and hand over the money.
In return, each of the school systems must agree to submit a five-year capital projects spending plan by July 31, 2002. The plan must include debt service payments and capital project fund distributions.
In addition, each corporation must agree to testify before the Indiana Gaming Commission — or any other entity requested by county officials — as to how the money was used to improve the quality of education in Harrison County.
Commissioner J.R. Eckart’s motion to approve the spending from gaming taxes paid by Caesars Indiana was seconded by James Goldman, a former school trustee at North Harrison. “Good deal,” he said.
(Speaking of property tax bills, the remaining half-year installment due Nov. 10 will be due instead on Nov. 13, because the courthouse is closed on Saturday and Monday for Veterans Day, said county treasurer Rena Stepro.)
The effect on next year’s property tax bills depends on the school district where the property is located, said Harrison County Auditor Karen Shireman Engleman.
The plan to reduce school debt, initially proposed by Councilman Alvin Brown, was approved in August by a council task force made up of Brown, Council chair Gary Davis, vice chair Carl Duley, Councilwoman Rhonda Rhoads, tax consultant Frank Cummings and Commissioner Goldman. The funds will be divided among the school corporations based on student populations.
Although the proposal somewhat miffed the commissioners initially, because it didn’t follow the established path for riverboat revenue from the commissioners to the council, all embraced the idea Monday.
And school trustees are expected to do the same.
“I think the board will approve it,” said Lanesville school Supt. Mary Lou Nay. “I don’t think my board will have any problems with the plan.”
Lanesville, the smallest of the three school systems, will receive $333,878; North Harrison, $987,819, and South Harrison, $2.1 million.
South Harrison Supt. Neyland Clark said, “I don’t see any problems” with the contract.
South Harrison already has major improvements underway at Heth-Washington Elementary. Construction is expected to begin soon at the South Central schools campus, and a feasibility study is underway to determine what improvements need to be made at Corydon, so taxpayers may not see a decrease in school taxes, but the increase won’t be as much as it would without the extra funding.
“We already have (building) plans in place,” Clark said. “But we will be very diligent and very responsible in receiving those funds and in retiring the debt.”
North Harrison, too, is expected to sign the agreement at Thursday night’s regular meeting.
Supt. Monty Schneider said yesterday he will make that recommendation to the board.
The corporation already has a three-year capital projects plan, which is required by the state, and it won’t be difficult to come up with a five-year plan, he said.
The “subtle” hint in the contract that the commissioners will consider a school corporation’s future plans before any additional funding is approved from riverboat revenue isn’t a problem for North Harrison, Schneider said, because his board has conscientiously kept the lid on school tax increases. “We have not had a tax rate increase in 10 years,” he said.
“We feel like our board already has adequate safeguards,” Schneider explained. “They’re up for election just like the commissioners and the council …
“We may not like that part of the agreement, but it will be my recommendation Thursday night to go along with it.”
Testifying before any entity as to the effect of riverboat revenue on education won’t be a problem, Schneider said.
The school corporation has already received $1.5 million in riverboat revenue plus $143,483 in scholarships, $27,160 in grants for various programs, and $31,350 for the North Harrison Babe Ruth league from the Harrison County Community Foundation.
The Foundation was initially established with a $5 million gift from Caesars and continues to receive a percentage of gross profits each month from the boat.
Notwithstanding any moral judgments for or against gambling, Schneider said, “It has been a benefit to the students at North Harrison schools, and I would have no problem testifying to that.”
Terry L. Miller, chair of the county commissioners, said there are still avenues which could be explored for spending riverboat money to improve education. (That doesn’t mean improvements haven’t been made in education in the three school systems in recent years, only that riverboat revenue has been used sparingly on programs to improve education, such as the Renaissance program, Miller explained.)
“I think we could throw some money at specific programs to help kids at risk,” Miller said.
For example, he mentioned an earlier suggestion from councilwoman Rhoads to expand kindergarten to an all-day program. “She thinks that would greatly improve education in the county,” Miller said.
Goldman said he thinks concern would center on whether on-going funds would be available if staff were hired and such a program implemented.
“I think that’s something I would support as long as the riverboat lasts,” Miller said.
“I was just playing devil’s advocate,” Goldman said.
He added later: “From the schools’ perspective, they want to be sure they have funding in place to continue a program before they start it.”