School Board suing County Commission over tax referendum date

Indian River County’s School Board decided Tuesday to wage a court battle against the County Commission to settle their dispute about the timing of a referendum to extend a property tax for school operations.

The School Board’s law firm plans to file an emergency petition for a writ of mandamus Wednesday in state Circuit Court, said Erin O’Leary, of the Garganese, Weiss, D’Agresta & Salzman law firm.

The School Board asked the County Commission to hold the tax rate referendum during the Aug. 18 primary election, but the commissioners set it for the Nov. 3 general election based on the higher turnout.

After the commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday morning to stick by their May 12 decision to hold the referendum Nov. 3, the School Board members voted unanimously that afternoon to file suit.

The School Board will ask a judge to determine whether it or the County Commission has the final say on the timing of the referendum, O’Leary said.

A court ruling is needed before the June 5 deadline for submitting the ballot question to Supervisor of Elections, O’Leary said. It will cost more than $20,000 in legal fees to see the case to its conclusion.

The tax provided $9.4 million in 2019, records show.

The current four-year tax rate is due to expire June 30, 2021, records show. If voters approve, the extension will start July 1, 2021 and end June 30, 2025.

Commissioners Peter O’Brian, Bob Solari and Joe Flescher said they wanted the referendum on the Nov. 3 ballot because more than twice as many voters turn out for general elections than primary contests.

Commissioner Tim Zorc switched sides from his vote on May 11 and joined Commission Chairwoman Susan Adams in support of holding the referendum on Aug. 18.

Zorc, whose wife Laura is the School Board chairman, said he changed his mind after his research showed general election voters frequently focus on the offices at the top of the ballot and skip the rest.

Voters originally approved the property tax rate in the Aug. 30, 2016 primary with 64.26 percent approving, elections records show.

The owner of a house with a taxable value of $250,000 pays an extra $125 per year in property taxes as a result of the optional school tax rate.

If voters were to approve the tax extension on Aug. 18 as the school year is starting, Superintendent of Schools David Moore said he could still negotiate multi-year contracts with perennial venders and save $200,000 annually.

But if he won’t know until November whether he’ll get the tax money, Moore said he would have to opt for more costly one-year deals.

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