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Make the developers pay for new schools

Column by Hal Walter

Local Taxes – November 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

I’VE ALWAYS BEEN a bit perplexed by the notion of a property tax to pay for schools.

I drive a motor vehicle, and I’m taxed for the use of the road by way of licensing and registration. If I go to the landfill, I’m charged a fee. That seems fair.

But this school thing is different. I have no children, but as a property owner I must pay taxes for schools. In fact more than half of the property taxes I pay go to schools. It makes better sense to me that we should tax parents in order to pay for schools. Charge them a flat fee per head.

But that’s not how it works.

On November 2, voters in Custer County will decide whether to finance $6.9 million in school improvements, which will actually cost $12.6 million once the interest is accrued. The money would be used for remodeling, renovating and improving existing school facilities, and for construction of new high school classrooms, science labs, a library and gymnasium.

In 1995, Custer residents overwhelmingly rejected a similar school proposal that would have cost taxpayers $8.6 million total, and I hope that they use similar wisdom in voting down this even more expensive measure in 1999.

Proponents of the school proposal offer up as reasoning that the current school facilities are inadequate, and that when students travel to other communities for academic and athletic events they see far superior educational facilities. They also point out that 70 percent of property owners who would be taxed for the expenditure don’t even live here. The new school backers have been campaigning hard, judging from the green-and-white signs up and down the main drag in the Westcliffe/ Silver Cliff Megaclusterplex. A vote against the new school would be a vote against children, a vote against our future.

Opponents, on the other hand, say that proposed largest-ever expenditure of public funds in Custer County is unwarranted, and point to a 25-pupil decline in enrollment figures between 1995 and 1998. The detractors say the small town doesn’t have the wherewithal to support such a costly school, and raise concerns that, if the current economic boom should falter, local residents would be left paying the tab. They also say that the school proposal is backed by a small group of people whose own personal interest would be advanced by a new school.

That small group would be the realtors (always spelled with a lower case “r”).

The town of Westcliffe itself was founded on a land scam involving real-estate at a railroad head, and history always repeats itself. So when I hear of any big projects around here, I’m immediately skeptical.

Railhead? Real estate scam. Ski area? Real-estate scam. Recreation center?

Real-estate scam.

Big shiny new school? It’s for sure a real-estate scam.

It’s no secret that real-estate sales have reached a plateau throughout Central Colorado. With the railhead and ski area long gone, one thing that might liven the market in Custer County is a new school. It would make this a better place to raise children.

I’m certain that the proponents are right about one thing — the current school facilities are less than awesome, and the kids do deserve better. But I don’t know if $12.6 million better is necessary, and the rest of the argument for funding such a big expense is lame.

The superior educational facilities Custer County students see when traveling are located in communities with visible means of support. The closest thing I’ve seen to sustainable economic development in Custer County is some outfit advertising in the Wet Mountain Tribune for assembly workers to build nose-hair clippers. And while 70 percent of tax-paying property owners may live outside of the county, certainly the lion’s share of the actual tax dollars are paid by people who live here and work here.

THE DETRACTORS are justified about their fears of getting stuck with the bill. One of the nice shiny schools Custer students might see on their travels is the Lake County Intermediate School and Recreation Center in Leadville. Lake County residents were hit with huge tax increases in the last decade when the mines closed down and individual property owners were left holding the bag for the expense of the school. It sounded like a good idea when business was booming, but now Lake County can barely afford to maintain this building.

Another example is the new high school in Alamosa. Voters approved the $12.5 million expenditure in 1994 at an advertised tax increase of 10 mills; a mill being one dollar of taxation for each $1,000 of assessed valuation. But they were shocked to learn that the burden had already grown to 16.8 mills by the time they received their 1996 tax notices. Schools, like most things, almost always cost more than advertised.

Custer County does need new school facilities. Recent declines in enrollment figures notwithstanding, the number of students surely has grown with the unchecked development in the last decade.

Developers are not only responsible for this growth, they have gained the most from it financially, and they stand to benefit the most from improvements to the school in the future. Why on earth should all property owners pay for it?

It may sound preposterous, but one Colorado county has already begun taxing developers to pay for schools. Residents in Elbert County passed an ordinance this year requiring developers to pay growth-impact fees directly to the school district. In other words, the school district taxes development in order to finance improvements. In addition, the school district has the power to deny development projects if conditions are not met.

This sounds like the right solution for Custer County — making the developers pay their own way for a change. It might even be better than charging a head-tax on children.

Hal Walter has bought Hallowe’en candy every year for the last 10 years, but despite the addition of several new neighbors, he has never been visited by a trick-or-treater at his burro ranch near Ilse.