Milford Public Schools is proposing its budget for the 2019-20 school year with a 5-cent tax levy increase­—a decision school board members did not take lightly.

The board met Sept. 9 and discussed the budget for nearly two hours before deciding to raise the levy, which it hasn’t done the past two years. In fact, the levy has gone down the past two years.

Board President Dave Welsch said the board had been optimistic the past couple of years that the Nebraska Legislature would pass some sort of legislation that would allow Milford to regain some state aid it received under the state’s budget formula in the past.

That aid has been steadily decreasing, and the board has been budgeting conservatively so as not to increase the burden on property owners.

“I think we do need to raise the levy a little and generate some property tax revenue because if we don’t, a year from now, we won’t have any cushion,” Welsch said.

The district’s auditor recommends that the district keep at least three months’ worth of cash in reserve in case of catastrophe. That’s about $2 million.

The board discussed examples of what it might need extra money for this year, such as if it had to replace a heating and air conditioning unit or if more students with special needs move into the district, since the school is legally obligated to pay for those services.

Without raising the levy, the budget wouldn’t have much wiggle room if those or other situations were to arise.

“Otherwise, we’re going to have to cut programs and teachers,” board member Craig Shaw said.

Superintendent Kevin Wingard said the board has discussed in the past what it would cut if it had to make a choice.

“What would we put on the chopping block? Extra-curricular activities? Then we’ll start losing kids,” Wingard said.

Wingard said he didn’t have much hope for the legislature helping public schools in the next legislative session and that prior legislative discussions have leaned toward putting additional lids on school spending.

“I just have a horrible feeling that schools are going to get targeted next year,” Wingard said.

“Kevin’s done a good job keeping expenditures down, which we wanted to do, hoping the legislature would come through, but they haven’t,” Welsch said.

Wingard proposed raising the levy 4 or 4.5 cents this year and then doing the same next year instead of doing it all at once.

“This isn’t a one-year issue,” he said. “If we don’t do a decent increase this year, I’m going to be asking for a significantly larger increase next year.”

The 5-cent increase will raise the levy to just over 92 cents, up from 87.2 cents last year. The highest the district is allowed to go is $1.05.

“We reduced the levy the last two years. If we hadn’t done that, this wouldn’t look so bad,” Shaw said. “If we don’t do it this year, we’ll be doing 8 cents next year and it’ll look like we’re spending out of our limits.”

Board member Jim Stahly said he didn’t want to see a major increase this year or next.

“I could live with 4 (cents). I’m just hoping it turns out better a year from now, somehow, that some things change,” he said.

Stahly said he remained optimistic that the legislature will come to a decision on school funding.

“We don’t want to get behind. But on the other hand, I see what property taxes are doing to the homeowner,” Stahly said. “We have no control over the valuations. We have no control over what our state aid will be. There’s one thing we can control, and that’s our levy.”

The proposed operating budget for 2019-20 is just over $13.2 million, up from $12.7 million last year. That includes the district’s general fund, bond fund and special building fund.

Of that, around $6,184,000 will be generated by the tax levy.

For property owners, the levy increase translates to about $50 per $100,000 of valuation.

Land valuation decreased 1% in the Milford district over the last year, which cost the school district part of its budget. Shaw and Wingard said they expect valuations to continue going down.

The board set public hearings on its final tax request and the overall budget for Monday, Sept. 16, to begin at 7 p.m. at Milford Elementary School.

The public may give opinions or ask questions during the hearing.

“I have no problem with anybody coming in and questioning this budget. I can probably show them where we should have spent money,” Wingard said.

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