Jackson County

Pascagoula and its school district need a judge to hear their battle over tax increase

A majority of the Pascagoula City Council last week voted to take back a tax increase the Pascagoula-Gautier School District asked for. The school district has sued.
A majority of the Pascagoula City Council last week voted to take back a tax increase the Pascagoula-Gautier School District asked for. The school district has sued. klnelson@sunherald.com

The Pascagoula-Gautier School District filed suit against the city of Pascagoula late Thursday asking the courts to make Pascagoula give it the tax increase it says it needs to run the school system and make improvements.

This month the City Council granted a roughly 4-mill increase in taxes for the school system and then took it back on Sept. 21.

Jackson County Circuit Court held an emergency hearing Friday to take up the fight between the school district and the city.

It was the school district that asked for emergency relief Friday, a temporary restraining order, because on Oct. 1, the city’s budget goes into effect with the tax rate set, a tax rate that doesn’t include the extra 4 mills for the schools.

The hearing was stopped, however, because of another lawsuit the school district is involved in — one against Jackson County over tax revenue issues. The judge, who was appointed at the last minute by the state Supreme Court to hear the schools’ emergency case, has an association with the suit against Jackson County. So he recused himself. The other Circuit Court judges in Jackson County rescued themselves, as well, for being too close to the issue.

So the school system is expected to begin again next week to get a judge to hear the case.

The school district had a $2.6 million shortfall in industrial tax revenue over last year and asked for half of that from the city in the form of a 1.34 mill increase in taxes. It also wants a 2.62 mill increase in taxes so it can borrow $22 million for a new performing arts center, new turf for the fields in both cities and major improvements to aging buildings — part of a strategic plan.

The City Council first approved that tax increase — the majority under protest — because it believed it was its statutory duty as the tax levying authority for the schools, Mayor Dane Maxwell said. Then, he said, the city’s attorney and staff “looked into the matter in an effort to ensure that the Pascagoula-Gautier School District followed the proper procedure” when it sought the tax increase.

“The majority of this council was adamant on not raising taxes,” Maxwell said.

Then, after consulting with the State Auditor’s Office and on advice of the city’s attorney, the City Council met and a majority of the members voted to take back the tax increase, leaving the school district with the same tax rate it had last year.

The school’s lawsuit asks the courts to put a temporary hold on the issue until the matter can be considered in court. It also says the school district followed the “due, proper and legal notice” prescribed by law to get the tax increase, and no written objections have been filed by any taxpayer.

It says the city does not have the right to reduce the budget of the school system, regardless of the formalities. It also wants the millage passed that will allow it to borrow the money for improvements to the system.

School Superintendent Wayne Rodolfich told the Sun Herald he wants to see the schools offer children the facilities that are the best.

He said a committee of 250 people from Pascagoula and Gautier decided what improvements the school system needs to make going forward. And they planned a comprehensive loan to do upgrades to the system.

“We followed the rules on getting the loan,” he said. “There seems to be some issue about where the money is being spent.”

“We’re being guided by the people and not a City Council that says where we can and can’t build things,” Rodolfich said “There’s a clear separation of powers.”