Monday, June 15, 2009

Referendum Follow-up 1/14/09

Since Noblesville School’s $59.5 million building referendum failed last Friday, area media have presented the no vote as an isolated reaction against taxes. Truth is, the baggage voters brought to the polls on Friday was bigger, broader and deeper than taxpayer exhaustion. From the voters I talked to, mistrust about who pays for growth was also at work.
The referendum’s failure was unfortunate because our school system is a quality organization – one of the best in the State. They need our support.
But if School leaders don’t address this mistrust – if they simply try again as soon as they can with hopes of converting a simple majority, they’ll likely fail again. They need to let go of their Hoosier “hear no evil, see no evil” politeness, and point the finger back at the source of the mistrust: City Hall.
School leaders need a come-to-Jesus moment with City leaders so that voters will have hope that the endless cycles of mega-growth approved by City Hall, followed by a tax increases for new schools to accommodate that growth, won’t continue indefinitely.
Even with the down economy, the people of Noblesville could be counted on to support education.
But with recent national news stories of political and business shenanigans that end up costing the little guy, well, suddenly there’s a lot of mistrust among voters nationwide. Combine that with local mistrust. Voters have watched their city leaders invite unlimited numbers of new residents to town, while they schmoozed, golfed and dined with, and took campaign contributions from the developers that built the new neighborhoods that brought an avalanche of new students to our schools in the Ditslear era. And they’ve watched the same city leaders isolate land in TIF districts that deprive schools of tax dollars. Then they’ve watched city leaders grant tax abatements to their friends, to one another and to campaign contributors who locate in those TIF districts.
And then to be asked to pick up the tab for resulting school growth?
In the past, voters shrugged off this seeming pay-to-play tomfoolery. It was too convoluted to bother judging when the local economy was booming. But perhaps not during an economic downturn.
A couple times over the last several years I’ve asked well-placed School officials if any City leader ever conferred with them before approving new housing, TIF districts, and tax abatements. The answer? No.
That’s shocking.
Between 2005 and 2007 Noblesville issued building permits for over 2,600 single-family homes, and at least 800 condo and apartment units. The average Noblesville home has .6 children. So the growth in just three recent years accounted for a potential increase of nearly 2,100 school children, added mostly to Noblesville schools with a small percentage sent to Hamilton Southeastern.
And what happens when the economy rebounds? Even if City leaders approve no new subdivisions and allow only the build-out of already approved subdivisions, a conservative estimate would tally up to 4,000 more homes. That would add approximately 2,400 additional students, exceeding the ’04-’07 tally. And School leaders apparently were never consulted. Voters have to assume that even if they had approved this referendum, another would follow in approaching years.
Worse yet, over the years, city leaders have placed 9% of Noblesville’s assessed property value within TIF districts. Taxes from growth within these districts temporarily bypass schools and are kept by the city for infrastructure improvements within the TIF district, meant to spur growth. For perspective: Westfield has just 2.46% of their valuation in TIFs and Hamilton Southeastern has less than one percent.
What’s more, City leaders give the businesses locating within these TIF districts tax abatements. This economic activity spurs more residential growth, driving up the number of children coming to Noblesville schools. But because residential taxpayers consume more in services than they pay for in taxes, this residential growth bundled with TIF district growth puts a financial strain on our schools.
The TIF districts should have very positive long-term effects on Noblesville’s tax base, but getting there could be hell for regular taxpayers.
Someday the TIF periods and all the tax abatements will expire and our schools should be flush with money – in ten or 20 years. If last Friday’s referendum is any indication, local voters apparently aren’t willing to pay the difference while we wait for that day.
And unfortunately, School leaders didn’t build any trust with the timing of the vote. Scheduling the vote so soon after a general election, but after retired snow-birds left for Florida, and then on a TGIF, well . . . rightly or wrongly, it felt to many voters like a crafty attempt to tip the vote in favor of approval.
I voted for the referendum. If we’re going to be a first class town we need first class schools. On top of that, we’ve got great schools and great educators who need our support. We pulled the rug out from under them last Friday. But this referendum may not pass until City leaders and School leaders have their come-to-Jesus moment with each other. That may be the only way to build trust among voters about how future growth will be paid for.

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