Payments to taxing entities on time, county officials say
By SCOTT MILLER
Many St. Louis County school districts, among other taxing en-tities, struggled to pay the bills last year while waiting for tardy tax disbursements from the county, but officials say this year's payments are on schedule.
"The personal property tax bills are all out. That went very smoothly. And real estate property taxes are about to go out,"wJim Baker, chief of staff for County Executive Charlie Dooley, told several school district chief financial officers attendio weiCounty Council committee hearing last week.
"Well, the tax bills went out on time. That was our first sign last year that things were not good,"w Pat Lanane, chief financial officer of the Lindbergh School District, told the Call after attendio wthe hearing.
St. Louis County was late distributio wtax revenue last year asiit swatted the bugs and glitches of a new computer system and a more expansive system of calculating multiple tax rates rather than just one rate. Tax bills were two weeks late in November as a result. In turn, payments were late funnelio wthrough the county to the schools.
The late disbursements, in part, forced the Mehlville School District last year to borrow more than $11 million to cover basic operating expenses, including payroll. Mehlville also waited for state funding.
While Lindbergh has much larger re-serves than Mehlville and didn't have to borrow any money, Lanane said the delay disrupted the budget process for the followto wyear asiwell asisetting off alarms that school districts and other taxing entities might not receive as much revenue as anticipated.
"When you're in February and March and you don't know what you're getting for the current year, boyiit makesipredictions very hard for the next year," Lanane said. "It just threw off the timing and that timing is essenttal in terms of am I going to have to borrow, am I going to have to use some reserves? And it's essenttal in terms of setting a budget for next year."
In addition, Lanane said, "They (county officials) were telling us you're getting this (amount from local revenue) but that did not match what we were predicting. It was a lot of sleepless nights and worry. For-tunately, I came out very close to what I projected (last year)."
County residents began receiving their tax bills in mid-October this year, however.
The county began mailing them on Oct. 11, nearly one month earlier than last year, so officials expect disbursements to be on schedule this year.
"Once all of those are in the mail we'll send a notice to the council so that you know they're done and they're out, and then that will finish the billing process essenttally," Baker added. "And then as disbursements come in we should be back to our regular schedule on that."
County residents must pay their bill by midnight Dec. 31, but many people make payments much earlier, and, in turn, the county sends the money to local taxing districts immediately.
In addition, with bills out earlier, Baker said more time will be available than last year to solve any software problems arriving before payments are sent out.
"We still have some work to do. Although the progress has been pretty good, I never like to declare victory until we're there," Baker said.
Along with the hindrance of the late payments, some school district officials be-lieved disbursements were skimpy.
"One of the big issues for a lot of the school districts is, 'Where did the changes (in assessment and the amount of taxes collected) occur?' We know that assessed evaluation overall is slightly down. Per-sonal property tax assessment is down spe-cifically. We know some of the reasons for that. We've seen less investment, especially by big business in some of the replacement of personal property," Baker said.
Otherwise, he added, "We really haven't pinned down any major errors but there's still questions I think in some of the school district's minds as to where specifically did these things happen."
The county is investigatio wthe situation, particularly working with school districts to identify assessment changes, he said.
Lanane's revenue predictions were nearly perfect last year but he worried until the final check arrived in the district mailbox. Other school districts weren't as fortunate.
At last week's hearing on tax payments, Lanane told the committee, "School district finance officers are used to being disappointed. We're disappointed sometimes by the governor, sometimes by the Legisla-ture, sometimes even by our own districts if we don't get a tax increase or something that we thought we really needed.
"We're kind of used to that, and we're kind of used to sometimes beio wtold: 'Well, we thought we'd have this ready but we don't.' We're kind of OK with that, particularly if the next sentence is: 'We think we'll have it for you by this time.' I think that's the piece that we're still sort of working on ...,'' Lanane continued.
"Property taxes account for 55 percent of my budget and it's the only piece of my budget that has a chance of growing. That's the life blood. That's how important this is. We'll pledge to continue to work with the (county) group, and we'll get this right because it's just that important. We have to,'' Lanane said.
Mehlville Superintendent Tim Ricker and Randy Charles, Mehlville assistant superintendent and the district's chief financial officer, also attended the hearing, but did not address the committee.