School funding verdict appealed

Oct. 17, 2013 @ 05:05 PM

The Union County Board of Commissioners filed to appeal the $91 million verdict to fund the Union County Public Schools handed down by a Union County jury last week.

Commission Chairman Jerry Simpson stated in a Thursday morning release that the county simply did not have the available funds to pay the amount awarded to UCPS.

“We are not going to sit by and have 12 jurors determine the future of our county,” Simpson said. “If taxpayers want to spend that kind of money and deal with the consequences of that kind of spending, then all the voters of Union County should decide to go down that path. This decision would harm our businesses, our schools, our families to the core.”

Paying the awarded amount would cause irreparable damaged to the county's economy and ability to serve residents, Simpson said.

“The bottom line is that if this verdict stands, it will cost taxpayers a bill of $64.4 million for just a single year,” Simpson added. “That’s a property tax increase of 27.7 cents. To Union County families that means a home worth $100,000 would receive an additional tax bill of $277, and for a home worth $400,000, the additional tax bill would be $1,108. An unplanned tax bill of that size for any family would be catastrophic. The Board cannot let this verdict stand and devastate our residents, our families, our businesses and our most vulnerable, like the elderly and those on fixed incomes. The Board of Commissioners will fight this verdict to the end for the people of our community.”

To appeal, attorneys for both the county and schools would present to a three-judge panel reasons to try the case again. Appeals judges consider the legal process of the original trial. Appeals are granted only if it is proven there was some error of law or legal procedure that can be corrected in a second trial. Judges do not grant appeals on the basis of fact, the inability of the losing party to pay monetary awards or either party's displeasure at the verdict.

County officials did not reveal their basis for appeal. After the release was distributed, County Public Information Officer Brett Vines sent out a statement that Simpson would handle all media inquires. But Simpson would be "unavailable" all Thursday. But Vines said he would take media questions in writing for answering later.

UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said the news did not surprise him.

"I thought this would happen," he said. "We really hoped that it wouldn't. It's just going to hurt the tax payers and drag out repair of the schools."

Simpson stated last week that the county does not have the $230 million the school's attorney argued was there. Yercheck said that goes against testimony given by school experts and accountants.

"I'm going to continue to believe what I heard from sworn testimony," Yercheck said.

According to a memo from County Manager Cindy Coto to commissioners, the testified amount reflects a dollar amount the county currently has but is not able to spend as it chooses. During the trial, the school attorney suggested that the county had the full $230 million amount to spend at its discretion. In fact, only $26.7 million is not already dedicated to a project or an expense.

More than $91 million is in the county's water and sewer enterprise fund, but comes from utility user fees. That money is supposed to pay for water system operations needs and repairs. Ultimately, it will pay for improvements and expansions to the whole system.

There is money in the county's capital fund, but most is dedicated to current and planned projects.

"While the County is financially strong, as the information presented demonstrates, there is not a 'stockpile' of funds available," Coto wrote.