Vail Daily letter: Government transparency
November 4, 2016
It's election time and the time to be highlighting importance of fair elections in our democracy, especially if teaching civics in schools. Transparency in government is frequently referenced as an electioneering motto for good things to come or criticism of past performance. A good definition (from Ballotpedia) is: Honesty, openness and accountability define government transparency. Ironically, the school district's property tax proposals 3A and 3B were launched with the promise to be exceptionally transparent in order to make up for an earlier failed attempt to raise taxes criticized for opaqueness. Hence, 3A and 3B are good subjects to explore what it means to match up to that honesty, openness and accountability:
Basically well done — Issue 3A, mill levy override:
• Consistent benefit information included a comprehensive list of how the monies will/could be spent.
• Consistent taxpayer cost information: additional tax for residential property ($1.90 per month, per … ), total raised per year ($8 million) and length of tax ( seven years).
• A new Citizens Oversight Committee for public accountability.
• The actual ballot language basically matched the advertising.
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In contrast — Issue 3B, bonds for buildings:
• Consistent benefit information with a list of possible uses of the $144 million for buildings, etc. — the pared-down "most urgent" amount, from original $200 million "necessary" amount.
• But the cost information only included the cost for residential property ($1.44 per month, per … ), and only for the first year.
• Hence, missing were: total raised per year (computed at $6.1 million), length of tax and total amount to include costs of borrowing.
• The above referenced Citizens Oversight Committee for accountability was originally to be in place also for 3B (per July 27 school district's mailing), but subsequently disappeared without explanation.
• The actual ballot laid out the benefits nicely. But it was confusing with annual tax collections up to three times stated for the first year, did spell out the total to be collected with borrowing costs and again was open-ended for the loan term. Likely folks who made up their mind beforehand did not need and did not read the full ballot.
Omissions and such:
• Both 3A and 3B employed the technique of making costs seem like it's money that won't be missed. Expressing costs in bold type as "less than $2 per month, per … " uses the fact that many folks simply pick up on only one number or aspect in our world of information overload.
• Missing was some idea of impact on total property tax bills (for schools, police/sheriff, water/sewer, rec districts, etc.) — estimated at 10 percent. Alternatively, revealing the added mill levy for each tax proposal would have allowed individuals to calculate their own new total tax bills.
Summary: At this late date, this letter is not meant to change anybody's vote — rather to highlight the challenge of presenting information to get the vote, while still pursuing the elusive honesty, openness and accountability. One might give a pass/fail grade for both benefits and costs for each tax proposal. My take is 3A gets a "pass" for both benefits and costs, while 3B gets a "pass" for benefits. But 3B gets a "fail" for costs — completely unnecessary as there seems to be enough strength in the benefits to allow honesty, openness and accountability in the cost presentations. But let students give a more precise grading as part of learning civics — if that's still taught. In fact, if there are future ballot questions regarding our schools, let's have the students organize them!