VCSC: Language of school referendum could mislead the public | Local News
Vigo County School Corp. Facilities Referendum took another step forward on Friday. But now district officials are concerned that the state-mandated wording of the question could mislead the public.
The ballot question reads in part: “If this public question is approved by voters, the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence would increase by 55.55% and the average property tax paid to the school company per year on a business real estate would increase by 50.64%”.
The county auditor’s office calculated the percentages to include on the ballot.
On Friday, the Vigo County Electoral Board gave preliminary approval to the referendum question that will appear on the May 3 ballot. Approval is procedural, required by law, and is then submitted to the Local Government Finance Department for review.
“It’s a state-mandated matter that we wish we could talk more about what this action means to our constituents,” Superintendent Rob Haworth told the Elections Commission.
Once the DLGF completes its review, it returns its recommendation to the county electoral board, which must rule on the language of the ballot by February 18.
The $260 million referendum would be used to build new university facilities and renovate non-university facilities at high schools in North, South, and West Vigo; it would include West Vigo Middle School, which is adjacent to the high school.
The referendum question as it currently stands is as follows:
“The Vigo County School Corp. increase the property taxes paid to the school corporation by owners and businesses? If this public issue is approved by voters, the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence would increase by 55.55% and the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a business building would increase by 50.64%.
“The Political Subdivision may issue bonds or enter into a lease for the 2022 High School Safety, Security, Infrastructure, Replacement and Restoration Project, which includes the construction of academic spaces and the renovation and improvement of the North Vigo High School, South Vigo High School and West Vigo Middle/High School, site improvements and purchase of equipment and technology, estimated to cost $261,790,000 over 22 years.
“The last property tax referendum within the boundaries of the political subdivision for which this public matter is being considered was proposed by the Vigo County School Corporation in 2019 and passed.”
VCSC: wording doesn’t tell the whole story
In an interview, Haworth raised concerns that the wording of the question could be misleading to taxpayers regarding the actual tax impact.
“We have no local control over the matter,” he said ahead of the meeting. “This is a state-driven formula. … As a result, I don’t think it accurately represents our local situation.
A law amendment during the last session of the Indiana General Assembly revises the local public question to include the “estimated average percentage of property tax increase” on residential and commercial properties.
The new wording replaced long-standing previous wording that provided for the proposed increase in the property tax rate per $100 of property tax assessment for the property taxpayer.
The Indiana School Boards Association supports the return to the previous language. It says the new language “is considered ambiguous and could misinform a taxpayer who pays significantly less, or more, than the average percentage increase in property tax,” depending on its legislative priorities.
The auditor’s office calculated the percentages to include on the ballot, and they are factually accurate, Haworth said. But the long overarching question “doesn’t do justice to the financial impact,” he said.
He said the referendum question does not reflect the end of the operational referendum in 2024. It does not inform voters of the importance of the referendum for the district to have a comprehensive plan for all facilities, not just high schools. He also doesn’t talk about the impact of tax caps, which limits the district on its capital projects plan.
Voters might be confused and think that the average property tax increases of 55.55% or 50.64% apply to the total tax rate. In fact, it only applies to the corporate school tax rate, which for 2022 is 98 cents per $100 of assessment.
Haworth encourages people to visit the Vigo County School Corp. website, which includes information about the referendum as well as a tax impact calculator. Using the Net Tax Impact Calculator, people can determine how much extra they will pay in school property taxes as a result of the facilities referendum.
He pointed out that there are 26 tax districts in the county of Vigo. He gave the example of the Township of Nevins, which has a 2022 tax rate of $2.11 per $100 of assessment; in comparison, Terre Haute Harrison Township has a tax rate of $4.50 per $100 of assessed value.
The school district’s share is 46% of the Nevins tax rate, but 22% of the Terre Haute Harrison tax rate.
The ballot question takes the 26 tax districts and creates an average. “I believe the average doesn’t speak to the people of Nevins Township, or the people of (Terre Haute) Harrison – and probably everyone else,” Haworth said.
The question also does not take into account that the operational referendum would end in 2024. The 55.55% “is based on the fact that the operational referendum is still in the calculation of the tax, therefore, rather than a net increase of 25 cents, they make 41 cents,” Haworth said.
(The current operational referendum is 16.2 cents per $100 of assessed value. The district proposes to end it in 2024, and that rate would then be applied to the facilities referendum.)
Also, people who go to the polling booth and see the 55.55% increase might also think it applies to the entire property tax bill, not just the school portion, said Haworth.
It also does not explain that if the referendum is for secondary schools, it also means that existing debt service funds can be used for middle and elementary schools, creating a comprehensive plan of facilities. district which includes maintenance.
The question also does not address how the property tax caps have interfered with the funding of the district’s capital project financing plan.
“My fear is that people will take the Indianapolis issue and not come back and apply it to their local portfolios,” Haworth said.
District officials, a political action committee, and community members will work leading up to the May 3 primary election to try to educate voters about the referendum and its importance to not just the district and its high schools, but for the community as a whole, Haworth mentioned.
“We are up to the challenge,” he said.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or [email protected] Follow Sue on Twitter @TribStarSue.