Vail Daily column: Taking a close look at school tax proposals
October 9, 2016
Eagle County schools are requesting two property tax increases in the November election — Issues 3A and 3B. The notion that local public schools are supported by local property taxes is woven into the fabric of American life. For Colorado, it's a hybrid system where some of the funding comes from local property taxes and some from the state using an equalization formula. Fully explaining this would take a four-credit college level course.
The key thing is an implied understanding that property owners, in general, must support public schools regardless of their situation. For the involved — parents and grandparents of current students, school employees or public school activists — these school tax decisions are what some would call a no-brainer.
For the un-involved, it's more complicated. This grouping includes those who fall into one or more categories of: One, those without kids in schools now — singles, couples without children, empty nesters, parents of very young children; two, parents of children attending non-public schools; three, for some, increased taxes present hard choices of what has to be given up in return — for example, those: on fixed incomes, facing large health insurance and other health costs, trying to qualify for their first mortgage, tenants where taxes could increase the rent; four, local small business owners — where the 3.7 times-the-taxes-as-on-residences are automatically passed through in their commercial lease; and, five, second-home owners, who cannot vote, but yet are part of the community.
It would seem — in a time where costs are going up and every organization wants more money — the tax increase proponents must characterize the benefits with some "personality" and show costs in a "grown up" manner. But, where to get this information?
• Unfortunately, no non-profit facilitated forum, addressing pros and cons, has been scheduled — similar to what was held for state level issues in late September at the Colorado Mountain College.
• Information is in a "for" and "against" formatted document sent by the county, summarizing unstructured public input — noting it's not a comprehensive view and some dollar amounts quoted are simply incorrect.
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• All registered voters (or households?) have been sent a "glossy" paid by a proponent group, Citizens for Exceptional Eagle County Schools. For Issue 3A (salaries and programs), it had a list of one-liner benefits, but was vague regarding the important issue of teacher salaries and a new citizen oversight committee. For Issue 3B (bond issue for buildings and equipment), it had a comprehensive display showing where the monies might go. For both issues, there was no mention of increased leveraging with volunteers and outside organization partnerships (in our skill- and resource-rich community) for programs, instructional technology and more. For property taxes, the less than $2 per month was meant to imply few would miss this and did not show the number of years the 3B tax would run (20-plus years)! There were impressive testimonials — but might have had some human interest stories from students. But, given the limitations in a fold-out "glossy," it's a good starting point to explore further.
For those who want a boring, yet fuller explanation of costs, read the following section, otherwise skip to the next section:
• Issue 3A, mill levy override proposal: First the term mill levy override is a special, government-speak provision that allows local school districts to collect over and above (with a limit) what the state says is right per student — without reducing the state's contribution on a per-student basis. Issue 3A costs residential property owners $22.80 per year per $100,000 of the county's every two years estimate of property value, called "actual value" in government-speak. It collects a minimum of $8 million per year for seven years, totaling at least $56 million. This more than makes up what was lost from state funding during the Recession.
• Issue 3B, bond proposal: It starts with $17.28 per $100,000 per year per that "actual value" for residential property. It collects $6 million per year initially, with a 20-year term for this type debt. Planned projects need $144 million, so $6 million times 20 years equals only $120 million, hence collections must go up or the terms extended — this before considering the costs of borrowing.
• Percent increases:
1. Passing both ballot issues increases the total school property tax by 24.7 percent; for those who may select only one, Issue 3A increases it by 14.1 percent and Issue 3B by 10.6 percent.
2. Impacts on total property taxes varies as to where the property is located. Each area has varying and multiple taxing entities that include, in addition to Eagle County Schools: Eagle County government (separate from the schools), municipal governments (six in Eagle county) and special taxing districts — library, recreation, ambulance, library, fire, water and sewer, cemetery, etc. For example, passing both 3A and 3B will increase the total property tax in Vail about 11 percent, but this may be more or less in other areas.
Two areas of unanswered questions remain:
Colorado's hybrid school funding system is tied to Colorado's Taxpayers Bill Of Rights, designed to keep "government" expenditures in line with inflation. Note, for schools it considers the size of school populations on a per county basis. Yet, why does inadequate school funding make it to the top one or two issues in some counties and not others? Two examples beyond Eagle County are: One, Custer County has school funding further down the list, noting its well-established School Accountability Committee focuses on the entire school system, while, two, Gunnison County, where school funding is a big issue, its school district — half the student size of ours — is joining five other counties suing to change the existing state system (Kerr et al. vs. Hickenlooper). Counties closer to us also have contrasting stories — but complex and way beyond the scope of this letter.
Spending on a per-student basis is another issue. Colorado is 47th out of 50. This sounds really bad and immediately whets one's appetite for more understanding of this gross metric. If its adjusted for state average incomes and costs of living, how does this affect things? Does it factor in the quality of supporting infrastructure of buildings, bus transportation, athletic fields, etc.?
And most importantly, how do the students do as compared to the national ranking? Finally, within Colorado, how do things stack up?
How all this information regarding the knowns and unknowns affects one's decision is an open question. It would seem the school system could yet hold a public forum, with a non-aligned facilitator, to explore in an interactive attendee setting, the great unanswered questions and others that may come up — coupled with television replay on our local channel. Simply put, Issues 3A and 3B are important to all, and nobody wants voter remorse down the line.
Paul Rondeau lives in Vail.
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