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Board approves school tax levy hike

The Cloquet School Board voted to approve the maximum 2013-14 school levy possible without a public referendum at its Monday night meeting.

The board voted 5-1, with board chair Gary Huard in opposition, to increase the per-student levy from $97 to $300 for the next five years.

The result for the owner of a $100,000 home in Cloquet will be a property tax increase of about $60 a year, according to Business Manager Kim Josephson.

The board's "Truth in Taxation" hearing prior to the start of the meeting drew two public comments, and the board approved the levy increase without discussion immediately after the hearing ended.

The board certified the coming year's levy at $4,285,929, an increase from $3,720,229 a year ago. The Minnesota Legislature allowed districts to levy up to $300 per student without referendum during its last session.

State tax dollars will also flow to the district due to the levy increase. The district expects to see a total increase in revenue of approximately $1.1 million due to the levy increase and additional funding from the state of Minnesota.

However, Huard said he voted against accepting the proposed levy because he wants to see money spent more wisely.

"I think we could tighten our belts," Huard said. "We need to take a top-to-bottom look at how we spend money in this district and make sure that the taxpayers' dollars go as far as possible."

The district's revised 2013-14 budget shows anticipated revenues of $31.2 million with expenditures of $32.8 million for an anticipated operating deficit of $1.6 million. In the past, however, revenues have traditionally exceeded projections while expenses have traditionally been under projected totals.

In the expense column, the district's figures show that 68.8 percent of the budget goes for salaries, wages and employee benefits -- accounting for $22.6 million of the total expenditures. An additional 8 percent of the budget goes for debt service, meaning that over three-quarters of the district budget is encumbered either in negotiated contracts or required payments which cannot be altered.

And if taxpayers are looking for help from the state's projected budget surplus, it won't come in the form they might be expecting.

Josephson, speaking for administration in the absence of Superintendent Ken Scarbrough, said that the Legislature's proposals to fund school districts make the burden lighter but don't necessarily solve the problem.

"It's more an issue of better cash flow than increased amounts," Josephson said.

In other actions Monday, the board voted to hire the consulting firm of Eide Bailly in the amount of $5,500 to help the district comply with the laws associated with the Affordable Care Act. The firm would help the district determine 30-hour status for employees, which triggers required health care offerings under the law; costs and fees including 'Cadillac taxes' for plans which exceed standards, and non-discrimination testing. Potential costs to the district for compliance with ACA have not been formally released.

The board also considered Monday, Jan. 20, as the first meeting date with citizens regarding the district's facilities issues. However, that date was not approved as it is also Martin Luther King Day and school will not be in session.