By DAVE GYMBURCH Staff writer

The use of the Rome school district’s reserves and fund balance was defended against questions from a Board of Education candidate, before the board approved a final 2012-13 district budget to seek voters’ approval on May 15.

The $101.2 million budget, essentially unchanged from a tentative version approved two weeks ago, was adopted in a 7-0 vote Wednesday night following a second public hearing; absent were board members Amanda Cortese and Richard Miller. It includes a 1.72 percent local tax levy increase.

The only speaker at the hearing was board candidate Ken Metz, who asked about an estimated $400,000 savings from new district-wide contracts for electricity and natural gas; bids were discussed at a recent board finance committee meeting. The savings "goes into the fund balance," he said, rather than being applied to reduce the tax levy.

Metz said "taxpayers won’t catch a break....The overall tax rate" will "not be changed" through the savings. The public "never got a chance to comment," with "numbers...finalized with no public input," he added.

However, Superintendent Jeffrey P. Simons said that whether the savings is "used this year to keep the tax rate" lower or next year "against program cuts...or higher tax rates" at that point, "it’s a good thing" for taxpayers.

He remarked the district observes "multi-year budget" planning, and said of the anticipated $400,000 savings "it’s prudent to...use it" as additional "insurance for next year." It can help "protect students and taxpayers" in case financial problems develop, he added.

The district already has spent about $10 million from its reserves/fund balance in the last two years to help balance its budgets, said Simons, including plans to apply about $4.65 million toward the 2012-13 budget. That would leave about $7.66 million in fund balance and reserves as of June 30.

The district has a "structural deficit built in" its budget because revenues are not equaling expenses, and has been "making up" for it year-to-year by using fund balance and reserves, said board member Paul Hagerty. It is difficult to project when the deficit issue may be resolved, he added.

Regarding Metz’s comments about public input, Simons said the finance committee meeting was open to the public, and noted the two budget hearings. He said "we feel there is an appropriate level for the public to participate in our budget process."

The 2012-13 budget, to take effect July 1, is "balancing needs" by maintaining all "programs in place" to assist student achievement while also offering "affordability to taxpayers," Simons said. It is up by about $2.5 million or 2.55 percent from the current 2011-12 budget of $98.7 million.