on Bonds, part 2

Last Thursday was the public presentation on the details of the proposed school expansion, so I attended to get the latest finalized details. The newest version of the proposed tax increase is a bit lower, now at $0.90 per $1000 taxable value. Unfortunately, I discovered that in order to do that and keep it level was to pay interest only on the bond for the next 8 years, with the principal starting to be paid at year 9. And, I noticed that their numbers assumed a lot; as not everyone gets a homestead credit, commercial rollbacks could change come the next legislature, and Ag property productivity is variable so taxable value is also variable. When it comes to future taxes, nothing is ever fixed. One must never assume that the government will ever do things that will enable you to keep more of your money.

Calculating tax increases are a tricky thing to be sure. Local entities such as school boards and city councils are often dependent on the whims of Des Moines and Washington DC, which often can disrupt even the best laid plans. So what may seem small today, could balloon into something bigger later if politicians find a new cause they need to fund and decide to change the rules. Have you looked at your property tax statement lately? That tax statement consists of a lot of little charges, all which were initially sold to the public as being “not that much of an increase”. But politicians forget that there are other taxing entities that want their own sweet slice of an ever shrinking taxpayer pie, so eventually all these “little” taxes end up as one big tax bill for us.

There was also something a bit disappointing in the presentation though – the leaders seemed a bit unprepared for the public’s probing questions. This project is being sold to the public as a need due to school growth, and even the flyer I received that day said so. Yet, when members of the audience asked for specifics on growth for the last 5 years, no one seemed to have that detail. Considering this data is readily available on the Iowa Department of Education website, one would think that they would have had this information handy. Unfortunately, the real numbers actually belie their argument of growth. We had a peak enrollment of 657 in 2007-2008 which what prompted the installation of the modulars in the first place. We have not come even close to that number ever since (our average enrollment for the last 5 years was 628, last year was 618). Why not just tell the public that they believed that now was the time to do this project, instead of misleading them with false claims of growth?

Which brings me to another issue. The school also claimed that they have received feedback from the public regarding the desire to replace those modulars. While that may be true, they would not confirm if there were issues with the trailers that would warrant their replacement after only 6 years, when those things are rated for 20-25 years if properly maintained. Nor did they note that a lot of this feedback by the public was given after the board decision last year to move forward with the football field first. What exactly was the justification given back then to put sports facilities over some classrooms? Did they feel that the replacement was not yet warranted? If so, what has changed in the last year? I would hate to think that this was nothing more than a political calculation, where the project thought to have the least chance of passing a public referendum was chosen to be done first because it could be funded with the type of bonds that do not require a public project vote.

Perhaps I am just being cynical. I really don’t want to believe that taxpayers were intentionally manipulated in such a way. But if there are issues with the classrooms then why not make them public? Explain what has changed from a year ago. Explain why that even with enrollment being way down below our peak we can’t reshuffle classrooms to accommodate some differing class sizes. Explain why the older kids can’t use the modulars instead of the younger ones. Explain why we cannot wait 6 years until the football field is paid off and thereby model good stewardship to our children. But don’t hide things from us. Don’t use children to emotionally manipulate us. Don’t use worse case scenarios as the standard for decision-making.  Not only does that weaken your position, but it will make us not trust you. Ever.

So here is my golden rule for governing: Be honest. Be transparent. Be uncommon by using common sense. Do your homework. Be respectful of the taxpayer and his pocketbook. Have a servant’s heart so you can remember whom you were elected to serve. Because after all, aren’t we your neighbors too?

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