RIPLEY • The Tippah County Board of Supervisors is requesting an Attorney General's ruling on whether both North Tippah and South Tippah School Districts should receive funds from federal money paid to the county in lieu of property taxes for land within the Holly Springs National Forest.
The county funds a majority of its operations by ad valorem taxes that include levies on personal property (cars and businesses) as well as land. "The idea is that the in lieu payments make up the lost taxes that the county would have received if the property had been privately owned," said Board Attorney Sean Akins.
According to Akins, in the 1950s, the federal government passed a law that required the states to come up with a way to distribute the funds to the counties where national forest land is located. Mississippi's version requires that one half of the payments be paid for public schools. The remaining portion is to be spent, in the discretion of the Board of Supervisors, for roads or schools in the school district where the national forest land is located.
The statute reads: "fifty percent (50%) of such funds received by the county shall be expended for the benefit of the public schools, and the remaining fifty percent (50%) of such funds shall, in the discretion of the board of supervisors, be expended for the benefit of the public roads or of the public schools of the school districts within which national forest lands may be located."
North Tippah School Superintendent Bill Brand asked the Board of Supervisors on Friday Aug. 2 to consider giving all of the 50 percent of the funds that benefit the schools to North Tippah. Brand argued that because all of the national forest land is located in the North Tippah School District, North Tippah would be the district missing out on the ad valorem taxes.
"Our business manager, Tyler Freeman, recently discovered the statute for us. We believe the law to be clear," said Brand. "Since all the national forest is in the North Tippah School District, our district should benefit from all of the funds. The law states that 50 percent must be expended for the public schools. The supervisors have no discretion with this part of the money. However, the board of supervisors does have discretion with the remaining 50 percent. It may be given to the school district also, but the supervisors may keep it as long as it is expended on the roads of the district in which the national forest is located."
"I understand how it could be misunderstood. The first time I read the law, I also thought the supervisors had the discretion to give the funds to the schools or keep the funds and use on roads in our district. After taking time to understand the statute, it is clear that all of the money should benefit North Tippah. Half of the money must be given to the schools and if the supervisors choose to keep the other half, the stipulation is that it must still be expended for the benefit of the schools or roads where the national forest is located. This stipulation is there to ensure the money is used to benefit the school district, not that the money can be garnered by the supervisors and spent on anything they'd like," continued Brand.
"There is no stipulation for the first 50 percent because the district has been given the money. The law is being misinterpreted that we can give half the money to all the schools in the county, but the other half may only be used for the roads of the school district where the forest is located. If thought is put into this scenario, one would realize it would be unlikely to split 50 percent between all schools in the county and then turn around and stipulate the remaining half of the money is only spent in the district where the forest is located," Brand concluded.
Akins believes the Board is required by law to split the first 50 percent of the money between the two school districts. "We divide the first half equally between the North and South Tippah School Districts. North Tippah believes that the statute allows the Board to give it all of that money. We believe that the statute requires the Board to divide the money equally based on the language of the statute," said Akins.
The Board of Supervisors agreed to ask the Attorney General for a ruling on the statute. Akins said he and the Board would write for an Attorney General's opinion this week and that it will take a couple of months to get a response.
The in lieu payments the county receives are roughly $25,000. According to the statue, $12,500 is to be given to the schools. The other $12,500 is kept by the supervisors to use on the upkeep of roads and school bus turnarounds.