To raise the millage rate or not to raise the millage rate? That was the question at the Aiken County School Board meeting held on Tuesday night.


The Aiken County School Board unanimously passed the 2013-14 budget of $238 million but, in a separate motion, approved a net 3.3 mill increase by a slim five-to-four vote. Board members Ronnie West, Wesley Hightower, Levi Green and Tad Barber voted against the millage increase.


This was the final vote to approve funding for the next fiscal year.


The operating millage went up 5.8 mills which affects businesses, rental properties and personal properties by $19.80 per $100,000 value.


That impact on businesses was a major sticking point with some Board members.


The debt service budget, which generates revenue for new construction, decreased by 2.5 mills.


Owners of primary residents do not pay operations taxes in South Carolina. They will see the taxes on their homes reduced by $10 per $100,000 thanks to the decrease in the debt service budget.


The millage rate increase is to alleviate a $2.2 million shortfall in the General Fund.


For more than an hour, members debated whether to approve the millage rate hike or attempt to use funds from its reserve accounts of approximately $24 million to lessen the blow on businesses.


Board Member Dwight Smith said he was experiencing an internal struggle with the idea of taking that approach because he doesn't like the idea of burdening businesses with a tax increase but he has an obligation to the children of Aiken County.


Smith added that with the effects of sequestration, it's better to err on the side of caution and not take away from the school district's safety net.


Board members Wesley Hightower and Levi Green passionately defended the idea to avoid raising the millage rate. Hightower said he'd love for business owners to wake up in the morning and see in the newspaper that their taxes were not increasing.


Last year, there was a 4.2 mill increase in the school board budget.


“We fought a good fight and we fought for what we thought was right,” Hightower said after the meeting. “But, I do believe this was the year and the time not to have this increase.”


Board Chairwoman Rosemary English said the issue really lies with the legislators in Columbia, and more support is needed from the state. She said the state's base student cost is more than $600 per pupil below what it should be. Base student cost is a calculation of teachers, materials and operating expenses required per pupil in the public education system. This funding was established in 1977 and started off at $2,700 per student but is now at about $2,100.


With about 24,000 students in Aiken County, that deficit in funding adds up quickly, English said.