WELSH — A plan to triple millage rates and property taxes in the Welsh and Roanoke areas to fund school improvements is too much, according to some business and property owners.
Farmer Chris Krielow, who owns rice and crawfish fields in the area, was among dozens who spoke out against the proposed $14 million bond issue that would raise millage rates from just over 12 mills to 36 mills for school upgrades. The plan would also relocate Welsh-Roanoke Jr. High School to the Welsh High School campus.
“We’re not against trying to get something done for the future of our children in education, but we don’t think putting a burden on our business and property owners for 20 years is the right thing to do,” Krielow said.
The Jeff Davis Parish School Board has called a special meeting for 6 p.m. Thursday to consider canceling the election.
The Welsh/Roanoke school district is a “poor district” with a limited tax base placing the burden on small businesses and large property owners, such as farmers not covered by homestead exemption, Krielow said.
“Do we want our businesses to be the sacrificial lamb so we can have another school?” Krielow asked, receiving applause from the more than 180 people in attendance.
If the tax passes March 30, many businesses will leave and others will be forced to pass the cost on to their customers or reduce employees to be able to meet payroll and pay retirement and health care costs, he said.
“People are tired of taxes getting passed, getting more charged against us and money not going toward what the project is suppose to be taking care of,” he said.
Krielow is spearheading a committee to fight the proposal. Other committee members include Renee Hicks, Bobby Miller, Teresa Daniel, Chuck Abell, Jody Watkins, Angie Cline and Leroy Faul.
Krielow said the plan presented by the school board — which includes relocating Welsh-Roanoke Jr. High School to a new middle school classroom building at Welsh High School, a $1.5 million baseball field, track improvements, a new ag building, new middle school gym and new elementary classrooms — is a “wish list” of projects with no real priorities set. The plan also includes a new parking lot, bus canopy, renovations to the administration area and security upgrades.
Many questioned if all the improvements have to be done at one time and if the list could be revised to address the most urgent issues first.
School Board architect Steve Hotard of Welsh said the millage is a lot to ask of voters, but said it is needed to address the deteriorating condition of the aging schools.
“We realize that if we don’t start spending some money now, we are going to get progressively behind every 20 years, so it’s not necessarily that it’s just a wish list — it’s also a sustainability thing,” Hotard said. “If we don’t do some of these things now, in 20 years what you’ll need to do is these things plus more things, and 20 years after that do these things, plus those things, plus more things.”
The Welsh-Roanoke school is a wood frame structure with no elevator to meet ADA standards and outdated mechanical, electrical and plumbing issues and outdated fire and safety codes.
Superintendent Kirk Credeur said the school board is attempting to keep the schools sustainable and viable for the future and give the community what they want to see in their schools.
“What we are doing is, this is not a school board problem; this is a Welsh community problem,” Credeur said. “The school and the shape and condition of the school is a Welsh community issue. There is no money coming in from anywhere else that is going to improve the schools. The schools are an exact reflection of what the district wants them to be.”
Many schools are deteriorating at a rapid rate, he said. The Welsh-Roanoke school is in a 100-year-old building while most other schools are in 60-year-old buildings.
He said officials are concerned that the Welsh-Roanoke school may not be operable in the future due to the aging structure. The School Board has no plans for the aging structure but it could be sold or demolished, if the bond proposal passes, he said.
Credeur said if voters reject the tax, the School Board will have to come back with something else, but cautioned it may not be enough to address bigger issues with maintenance and structures in the next 15-20 more years.
Julie Fontenot, who owns an auto repair shop with her husband, Randy, said the tax is unfair to small businesses.
“Welsh has trouble keeping businesses here to begin with,” she said. “Is this in the best interest of Welsh and the children and families living here to lose the businesses that are here already? There are a lot of people talking about if this passed they have no choice but to shut it down.”
Herschel Bourque, who owns a water well service, said businesses will have to pass the increases on to their customers or face going out of business.
Teresa Daniel, an educator and local business owner, said she is not against school improvements, but is worried because the proposal will overburden taxpayers, hurt local businesses and hurt the schools by increasing enrollment with fewer teachers.
“It will hurt our businesses; you will have businesses that roll out; our economy won’t grow; and it will kill education; and it’s going to hurt our children because we won’t have as many teachers,” Daniel said.
She urged the school board to consider other options including a combination of a sales tax and property tax, but school officials say a sales tax would not generate enough revenue to support the project.
In reading a letter from former school board member Bobby Miller, Jody Watkins said the increase will have a negative impact on farmers, business owners, landlords and others.
“The proposed triple tax will cost some businesses thousands of dollars per year and hundreds of thousands over the proposed time span,” Miller wrote.
Miller said his business would have to pay $25,950 a year, or $519,000 over 20 years, which he cannot afford. He said his only option would be to relocate his business.
“This proposed tax could be devastating to some businesses,” Miller wrote. “I can’t see this being anything but hard on our community.”
Roanoke resident John Smith said the measure would have a “domino effect” through indirect and direct costs, including expenses the businesses will incur, passing the cost off to customers and reducing employees.
“As an outsider, I think this is a disaster fixing to happen,” Smith said.
Former Welsh alderman Charles Drake urged the school board to scratch the March election and study the proposal further before placing it back on the November ballot.
“We all want better schools, but this is not practical,” rice farmer Bill Wild said. “We need to come up with a better plan.”