Make them buy the schools they keep promoting

Column by Hal Walter

Education – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The ’95 election will go down in history as the first time Custer County voters banded together against unchecked real-estate development, by wisely rejecting a proposal for a new $4.3 million elementary school. The new school flunked by a margin as tall as the mountains that shadow the Wet Mountain Valley. Hip, hip, hooray!

First let me tell you why this school proposal is intertwined with the current real-estate boom. Then let me tell you how the children of this county should and could have a new school — and why we should make the real-estate industry pay for it.

What does a new school have to do with real estate? A lot or should I say plenty? For starters, schools are mostly funded through property taxes. For this essay we’ll keep it simple. Your property is assigned an “assessed valuation” based on property values in your county. This valuation is directly tied with real (as opposed to bogus, or unreal) estate values.

The more your property is worth, the more you pay for schools, even if you don’t own children. Don’t ask me who came up with this scam — I always thought it made more sense for schooling to be funded through a head-tax on children, rather than property. But that’s not the way it works. So when the real-estate industry drives up property values, we’ll all pay more for schools.

But that’s just the beginning.

You see, school attendance also grows with increases in real-estate sales. People buy land, build on the land, and move their families there. Then you need more of all services, including schools. The reason we need a new school in Custer County is simply because developers have directly brought new residents to the area through real-estate sales.

Once the new school is built, things really start to snowball. Real-estate salespeople will use it as a selling point for further development, driving clients past the new school and saying to them, paper cappuccino cup in hand, “little Jason can attend our sparkling new school.”

Soon taxpayers will need to build a new kindergarten and new high school for the real-estate agents too. Then a second elementary school. We’ll also need more and better roads and road service, more law enforcement, more social services, more parks and more, more, more of everything that costs taxpayers money. The real irony is that real-estate owners — not the vampires who sold them the property and caused this overload — will be expected to fund it all.

It’s a vicious circle. But voters put a spade-bit halt to this run-away bronc last November.

There was another problem with the school proposal —

the price tag was only an estimate. When was the last time you built something, or had some carpentry done around your house, and it came in anywhere near the estimate? Usually it’s two or even three times the price.

At the Out There Sports Ranch and Pack-Burro Training Facility, the $4.3 million school would have raised our taxes about $8 per month. My rough math skills tell me that’s a two-digit jump in our property taxes. But that’s only if the project came in at its projected price. Fat chance. I’d bet that new school would have cost us $15 to $25 a month before any teachers were scribbling on chalkboards. Jeeze, good thing the head of this household isn’t a free-lance writer and jackass wrangler!

But I’m not writing about this to kick a dead dog. After all, the school issue did fail. And fail big. I’m writing this because I think the youngsters in this community really do deserve, and should have, a top-flight elementary school, a place where they can get a good education and develop basic values. They should have a school that costs $13.2 million. And it should be paid for by the local real-estate industry.

How? Well, somebody needs to collect the required signatures to put an initiative on the ballot to build the new $13.2 million school — and fund it by taxing both sales and commissions on real estate. Make real-estate buyers pay a 10-percent sales tax; make sellers pay 10 percent on their profits. But most importantly, charge real-estate agents a 20-percent tax on commissions. For subversion’s sake, we’ll exclude the tax on commissions for the two or three real-estate outfits that have done business in the county for ten years or more.

Don’t cave in when the proprietors of the dozen or so other land warehouses start to holler. For too long these people have enjoyed a free ride while creating problems such as school overcrowding without the first thought about who was going to pay for it.

Besides, they can afford this — I’ve seen their vehicles, most of them mondo sport-yuptility subdivision yachts with car phones, faxes, refrigerators and, I’m sure, full surround-sound video, right on board. Tax write-offs. What’s the assessed valuation on those rides?

Get this measure on the ballot next November and I’d wager we’ll be breaking ground for the new school by next spring. Everybody else in the county has seen those vehicles, too. Besides, there are other bonuses in this initiative:

* It would hold those responsible for unchecked growth responsible.

* It would slow growth to a more reasonable and sustainable rate, because the buyers would actually have to pay more for the property through added taxes.

* It would stabilize property taxes because once growth in real-estate sales slows, assessed valuations will level off.

* It might open up commercial space for something other than real-estate offices in the Westcliffe/Silver Cliff clusterplex, because the price of doing business here would scare away any real-estate agent who’s not serious about staking a claim in the community.

* It would give a tax break to long-time residents who moved here to ranch or because they thought it was a place that nothing in the way of development would ever happen.

The vote against the school-bond issue was an historic moment for Custer County residents. It’s not the first time a group has banded together to say no to development, but it is the first time it was actually put to a countywide vote. I don’t remember anything about a Mudcliffe ski area ever being on the ballot, but maybe it should have been. Let’s not quit while we are ahead. Somebody, please, get the forms from the county clerk and get the initiative rolling. The kids here need a new school and the real-estate industry needs to pay for it.