Property tax increase to fund Clark County schools rejected


For the first time since the 1980s, the Clark County School District failed Tuesday to gain voter support for a capital program that would increase property taxes for school improvements and construction.

"We had to at least ask the question," Associate Superintendent of Community and Government Relations Joyce Haldeman said.

Although the School Board decided in 2008 and 2010 to wait before asking voters for another bond, proposing a property tax increase this year was still "premature," Haldeman said.

She and district officials paint a bleak picture of the impact.

As a w orst-case scenario, as many as 30 schools might be closed in the next few years, Associate Superintendent of Facilities Paul Gerner projected before the election. A 50-year-old school's electrical system might fail or a broken air conditioner might be beyond repair.

Even if a school is closed for just a couple weeks, students can't simply sit out but must be transferred to another school, which is another problem and expense for the district.

"Triage" is what the School Board will have to do on a school-by-school basis from here on out, Board member Chris Garvey said late Tuesday night.

On the ballot, the district asked voters to increase the property tax rate by about 21 cents per $100 of assessed valuation countywide, which would've generated an estimated $669 million.

The effect would have been $74.20 more in property taxes for the average owner of a home assessed at $100,000. After six years, the tax rate would've returned to its current level.

The money would've been spent on modernizing 18 schools, replacing six schools' climate control systems, upgrading 10 electrical systems, building four school gyms, replacing two schools and building two new schools to alleviate crowding at existing ones .

That would have benefited just 13 percent of the district's 311,000 students, which is why the tax initiative was never viewed as a sure thing. Also, the request for a property tax increase was made during hard economic times, district officials acknowledged.

"We have to ask voters," said School Board President Linda Young, noting that the district is being "frugal" by paying as it goes and not incurring new debt. "We feel it's a fiscally responsible plan."

Even if it wanted to, the district couldn't incur debt by pursuing a bond. With property values so low, it has no bonding capacity. Taxpayers are still paying off the district's 1998 bond at a rate of $194 a year for the average home assessed at $100,000. That bond generated $4.9 billion, mostly to build 101 schools and renovate 229 existing schools.

District officials have been clear that this multimillion-dollar tax increase would have addressed just the beginning of billions of dollars in facility needs.

"This was just a bridge," said Gerner, who is in charge of keeping schools up and running in Clark County, the nation's fifth-largest school system.

Gerner has said the 40 schools that would've immediately received attention under the tax increase need work now. They're beyond routine maintenance and repair.

"As time goes on and these systems fail - and they will - the School Board will be faced with some tough decisions," Haldeman said.

Even if the tax increase had won voter approval, there would've been one loose end that could have stopped the tax increase dead in its tracks: A court case.

Nevada Policy Research Institute, a conservative think tank, has filed a lawsuit against the district and Regional Debt Management Commission, claiming the Nevada open meeting law wasn't followed in putting the question on the ballot, which would have made Tuesday's vote invalid.

The institute alleges the open meeting law violation happened June 7 when the commission unanimously approved the ballot question. The institute asserts that public comment wasn't taken before the vote, as the law requires.

"We're trying to put an issue on the ballot for the people to decide," the district's lawyer, Dan Polsenberg, said during the Aug. 20 District Court hearing, arguing the institute shouldn't make that choice for the public. "I think this case is a sham."

District Judge Valorie Vega agreed, claiming "no harm" was done. The institute appealed to the Nevada Supreme Court, which has sent the matter back to Vega for a Nov. 14 hearing.

But that case seems moot now.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0279.

 

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