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Guest Column: Get facts before voting on bond

by Libby School Board & Tracy Comeau
| January 27, 2011 8:17 PM

For many community members, the school bond issue is not about Libby Public Schools. It’s about a tax increase. Why would anyone vote for a tax increase now, when unemployment is so high and the economy is so poor?

I guess my question is … when would it be a good time? With very few exceptions, Lincoln County has had double-digit unemployment for as long as I can remember and we’d have to go back to when the schools were first built to see a thriving economy.

Would that have been a good time? I doubt it. It is never a “good” time for a tax increase but sometimes one becomes necessary.

I thought back to 10 years ago, when I didn’t have a front row seat or a stake in the future of the schools. Would my husband and I have voted for an increase in our property taxes eight years into our mortgage, while struggling in the first year of our business and when I could not have told you where the middle school was located?

I can honestly say that I would not have voted for or against a tax increase without becoming informed first. What will the money purchase? Why is this needed? Who decided that this was needed? And most importantly, what will this cost me?

Having been involved in every step of this process I can tell you that the money from the sale of school bonds will purchase renovations and improvements to two schools that are now, after almost 50 years, becoming worn out and outdated.

The renovations will include the reconfiguration of underutilized space in the middle and the high schools to accommodate the consolidated grades. Multi-purpose areas will be built so that the students will have a place to eat lunch and socialize while providing the space needed to conduct gym classes for the additional grades.

Improvements will also be made to each school that will extend the lives of the buildings for at least another 30 years.

Without these renovations, the cost of repairs will become unmanageable for a district that has been experiencing declining enrollment for 10 years. Why does that matter? Because the funding that the schools receive is based on the number of students enrolled but the utility bills are constant regardless of the number of people in the building.

The district cannot operate on the current funding. The projected shortfall for 2011-12 is $450,000. It makes more sense to cut operating costs by consolidating the campuses and then ask the taxpayers to vote to improve and prolong the life of the two remaining campuses, than to simply conduct business as usual for a slightly lower tax increase, leaving three buildings still in need of repair and improvement.

This decision to consolidate was made by parents, members of the community, district staff and school board members during months of planning. Information and documentation on the entire process is posted on the Libby School District website at www.libby.k12.mt.us. You can also ask anyone who was involved in the process.

My final question would have been … what will this cost me? Although there are many numbers being thrown around there is no single answer. Most people know the appraisal value of their home. Mine is $137,575 but the calculation for the property tax increase is based on the property’s taxable market value, which is usually less than 50 percent of the appraised value.

In my case it’s only 42 percent, making my taxable market value $57,344. My tax increase on a three-bedroom house situated on just over five acres will be less than $75 per year or $6.25 per month. Therefore, the appraisal value of your home would need to be more than $200,000 before you will see a tax increase of $131.

Don’t take my word for it. Do a parcel search at www.gis.mt.gov to get information specific to your property. Seniors who are able to take advantage of Montana’s Property Tax Assistance Program may only realize a percentage of the increase.

I encourage everyone to get the facts before voting in this bond election. Please learn the actual cost to you and not the generalized costs being thrown around. This bond is too important to be voted down by misinformation.

There’s never a “good” time to vote in a tax increase but now is the time to address the school districts aging buildings. If we wait, the costs will be higher.

Please vote “yes” on the bond.

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(Tracy Comeau is chairperson of the Libby School Board).