The Graves County Board of Education missed an August deadline to put a potential school tax increase on the November election, and county officials say the issue is now dead.
"They can't put it on a future ballot," county attorney John Cunningham said of the 2018 increase. "They can start it all over again and try to get another tax increase."
Graves County Clerk Kim Gills said she sought legal advice from Cunningham after realizing the board had not met the August deadline.
"I would have been breaking the law if I had accepted to put that on the ballot, which I was not going to do," she said.
Although they had already missed the deadline and the tax increase question could not appear on the November ballot, members of the Graves County Board of Education voted in a special called board meeting Wednesday night to remove the request for the tax increase from the November ballot, saying they were waiting for an attorney general's opinion on the legality of last year's tax hearing.
Asked Wednesday if the question could be placed on a future ballot, board attorney Jesse Wright did not close off the possibility, instead saying, "At this time, we are just waiting on the attorney general's opinion before determining how to proceed."
When asked Thursday about the deadline and the board's failure to meet it, Wright repeated that the board's wish had been to get the attorney general's opinion first. He added that he would have to research case law to determine what the board can and can't do in the future.
"They may not have interest in looking at that," he said in a text message. "That may start from scratch. They may do something different. It's premature. The issue that was the bottleneck was the AG opinion."
The deadline for the ballot question is written in state statute. KRS 132.017(3)(a) says "The question shall be submitted to the county clerk not later than the second Tuesday in August preceding the regular election."
KRS 132.017(3)(b) says the board of education may withdraw the proposed tax increase or choose to have an election when voters collect enough signatures to force the tax increase onto the ballot. If it chooses to put the matter to voters, the election must be not less than 35 days nor more than 45 days from the date the signatures on the petition are validated by the county clerk "or at the next regular election."
The board originally chose the next regular election, which is Nov. 5.
Gills said last week she had not received wording on the ballot question from the board of education.
The board continued to insist members were most concerned about making sure last year's tax hearing was legal because of where it was held. Members approved a recallable 2.8 cent per $100 of assessed property value increase in a hearing at Lowes Elementary School in September 2018, saying the tax increase would allow school renovations.
Opponents have cited Kentucky Revised Statute 160.470(a), which says that such hearings should be held at the board's central office, except under specific circumstances. When the board voted on a 4% tax increase -- the maximum allowed without a potential voter recall -- last week, opponents also questioned the legality of last year's hearing.
"Because the attorney general has not rendered an opinion on the hearing from last year, I recommend we hold the 2.8 cents in abeyance," Superintendent Matthew Madding said at Wednesday evening's special called meeting. Board member Jim Wurth made the motion with member Kelly Whitaker seconding it and all voting aye. Julie Moffit was absent from the brief meeting, although she arrived just after it had adjourned.
At no point during the meeting was it publicly stated that the board had already missed the deadline for putting the matter on the November ballot.
Wright said he hand-delivered a request for the attorney general's opinion June 24 while in Frankfort. Both he and the board contend that last year's tax hearing was legal.
"The statute they relied upon does give discretion to the board on a suitable location for a hearing," he said. "However, the board does want to make sure it takes every effort to ensure the action is proper, so that's why we've been waiting on the attorney general's opinion."
Specifically, the statute says the board must hold the hearing in the principal office of the taxing district or "in the event the taxing district has no office, or the office is unsuitable for such a hearing, the hearing shall be held in a suitable facility as near as possible to the geographic center of the district."
The board's request asks the attorney general to decide: "Did the Graves County School Board comply with the requirements of KRS 160.470(7)(a) when it held a public hearing at Lowes Elementary, and not at the Board Office, regarding a proposed tax increase?" In his summary of the facts, Wright noted that Lowes Elementary is 10.6 miles northwest of the board office and that the board advertised the meeting location as required by law.
"The Board office was deemed unsuitable for this meeting because the brunt of the tax increase and/or any increases in bonding capacity resulting from the tax increase are expected to substantially benefit the Lowes Elementary School," he wrote. "Further, the Board did deem it beneficial for the community to be present at the location of Lowes Elementary so that attendees would have a direct understanding of the condition of the facility that was being discussed as part of the justification for the tax increase. No other location within the county could offer citizens a first-hand perspective of the condition of the school and insight into what, if any, tax increases the public might feel were reasonably required to address the condition of the school."
Lyn Warner, one of the people who spoke at last week's meeting, said she did not think it was easy for people from southern Graves County to get to Lowes both because of the location and the time.
Although the board has been in contact with the attorney general's office, that contact has not included an opinion and has also given no indication of when an opinion might be forthcoming, Wright said.
"It's always been my understanding the attorney general has a tremendous caseload," Wurth said.
Following last year's tax hearing and the board's approval of the 2.8-cent recallable tax, a petition committee collected enough signatures to put the tax increase on the ballot as a question to voters. The board of education challenged the petition based on its exact wording but lost in court, with Special Judge Tim Kaltenbach ruling that the board challenged the petition before it had been accepted by Graves County Clerk's Office.
The ruling cleared the way for the board to either place the question on the ballot for voters to decide or to withdraw the proposed tax increase entirely.