Santa Ynez Valley residents have another chance to vote on a general obligation bond to expand and upgrade our local high school, this time for $28 million.
In a recent letter, the school’s administration rather pointedly explained that a general obligation “bond is similar to a home loan. The money borrowed is paid back over time — typically 25 to 30 years — from a tax on all privately owned property in the district, including residential, commercial, agricultural and industrial property,” and that, “should Measure D2000 pass, property owners will pay an average of $29.95 per year per $100,000 of assessed valuation.”
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like a lot of money for individual property owners to pay toward the support of education in the community. After all, $29.95 a year for 30 years adds up to only $900.
But is it right?
For one thing, the cost to property owners with higher valuations, such as agricultural, industrial or commercial, would be many times greater. These properties are not the basis of the growth in student enrollment, but they pay regardless. And they generally pay more than most residential property owners. Often many times more.
Is this the only bond measure that will be necessary for expansion and/or upgrading of the high school over the next 25 or 30 years? What happens if (when) it becomes necessary to come back and ask for more money in 10 or 15 years instead of 25 or 30? The last high school bond measure — for $6 million — appears to have only met the school’s needs for about 10 years.
Should property owners bear the entire burden of financing the high school’s expansion? What about the people whose children go to the high school but do not own any property in the district and will not pay the cost of the financing? And, what about those property taxpayers who do not have any children or whose children do not, or will not, attend the local high school?
Are the improvements that the district’s trustees are planning the right ones? Is $28 million the right amount of money? (They tried for $40 million last time.) Is it necessary at all?
As long as the taxpayers are being asked to obligate themselves for $28 million, what about the idea of a middle school to relieve the pressure on the high school? How much would that cost? Many people think a middle school would be the best option and seem to feel that this alternative has not been pursued aggressively enough, if at all.
Other than the need to accommodate projected growth, the high school district still does not appear to have made a sufficiently strong enough case to gain the support of many voters. Furthermore, the effort appears to be a case of unfortunate timing. Everywhere you turn, politicians and bureaucrats are jumping on the money train. Taxpayers are being deluged with ballot propositions to generate more government funding. Dozens of cities and counties throughout California are asking residents to tax themselves for pet projects, even in the face of increased revenues at almost all levels of government — everything from libraries to open space and recreation facilities to homeless shelters Fresno is seeking an increase in the sales tax to raise money for nonprofit organizations. All worthwhile projects, but just how essential are they?
Closer to home, the City of Santa Barbara is asking for a 20 percent increase in the bed tax to raise an estimated $1.6 million a year to clean water and restore creeks. And, there is no sunset clause in this proposition. Why does the city need $1.6 million a year — forever — to pay for a short-term cleanup project?
At the state level, notwithstanding a record $12 billion projected surplus, California refuses to return the local property taxes that our Legislature appropriated from the counties during the recession a few years ago.
When will enough be enough? Increasing numbers of taxpayers are feeling overtaxed and trying to resist this trend.
What will happen when the good times end? Will we then be told that still more tax increases are necessary to maintain services? For those who are of the opinion that it will never end, all they have to do is read a little history.
In Santa Barbara County, we can examine the record. Not so many years ago, the county asked for and received an increase in the sales tax to raise $20 million for road maintenance, and we are now faced with deferred road work that is estimated to cost as much as $100 million to fix. In Buellton, the elementary school district promoted a $3.6 million bond issue that was not used for the intended purpose, and ultimately one-third of the money was completely wasted. So, are we to now simply accept the high school district’s representations about how the $28 million will be used or that it will be enough money?
No offense is intended to the dedicated people who sit on the high school district’s board. I have no doubt that they are all well motivated and honorable. But, I have also served on a number of community boards myself, and I know that things happen — circumstances change, boards change and, unfortunately, all too often there is little or no ”institutional memory” about promises or commitments made in the past.
There is also a companion proposition to Measure D2000 on the November ballot: Proposition 39, which proposes to reduce the super-majority required for approval of school bonds to 55 percent of the vote. If this passes, it will make it far easier for proponents to pass such bond measures — forever. And, Measure D2000 will also pass with just a 55 percent majority.
Perhaps we need a more equitable method of paying for our schools, but whatever the case, I come down on the side of those who are opposed to the high school bond issue.
— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who as lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.