Yates looms large in long-term school budget
by Rebecca Leftwich
Shutdowns at Georgia Power’s Plant Yates in western Coweta could cause more long-term budget concerns for the Coweta County Board of Education as the Georgia Legislature prepares to release its Fiscal Year 2014 budget and board members start talking education dollars.
After taking an $8.3 million hit – $4.2 to state equalization shortfalls, $2.3 to local tax digest declines and $1.8 million to an increase in employer costs for classified employees’ health insurance – the Coweta County School System was budgeted more than $10 million into its reserves for Fiscal Year 2013.
Instructional days, programs and positions remained intact despite the staggering loss.
And because the school system has consistently come in under monthly budget so far this year, new projections indicate the Coweta system is on track to use less than half of the reserve funds originally budgeted.
“At this point, we are hoping between being under on expenditures and receiving additional monies, we will not go into our reserves more than $4.7 million,” said Assistant Superintendent of Finance Keith Chapman.
State austerity cuts – which began in 2003 – will have cost the Coweta County School System $85.7 million by the end of FY 2013, according to Chapman.
But looming industrial changes will affect the tax digest and force more tough economic decisions for the school board, which last year slightly increased some class sizes and retained three furlough days to cut costs.
Georgia Power will shut down five of seven generating units at Plant Yates by spring of 2015, when federal Mercury and Air Toxics rulings go into effect that make the aging plant economically unfeasible to operate.
The remaining two units will be converted from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas generators to prevent a complete shutdown, but the company’s plans will hit Coweta County square in the tax digest.
That’s something the Board of Education must take into consideration as members begin the budget planning process.
“It will affect our digest in a negative manner,” Coweta Schools Superintendent Steve Barker said. “How quickly and to what degree, we don’t know. In terms of a two- to three-year budget projection plan, it greatly affects [schools] as well.”
Barker pointed out that the tax digest has been in decline since 2009.
“With Yates being a huge, huge portion of our digest, if we should see any turn toward the positive, [the shutdowns] could cause a slide right back down,” he said. “We know we’ve got to find a way to plan for that.”
Coweta schools property tax millage rates have not increased since 2004, remaining at 18.59 mills for maintenance and operation of the school system.