ELOST: Bad for taxpayers in a tough economy
To the Editor:
The article in last week’s newspaper regarding the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for education, ELOST IV, should generate a debate about the return we are receiving for the dollars we spend. The citizens of this county are not stingy when it comes to spending on the school system: by my calculation the school system spent something close to 29 million dollars for 2008-2009. (The Board of Education does not post a summary of its annual budget on its Web site. I calculated this number from data in a June 11 newspaper article.) We ended the school year with 3,259 students. That is a spending rate of about $8,900 per student. That’s not chump change.
For this money we have received recognition (our high school principal was national principal of the year), and we have acquired new buildings (a new gym, a part interest in an aquatics center). What we don’t have is a list of educational accomplishments worth $29 million per year. Our SAT scores are stagnant, the high school failed to meet adequate yearly progress under the NCLB Act, and the End of Course Test results for this spring are dismal. (See the story on Page 7A of the August 13 issue of the paper.) Out of eight tests, we are below state average on seven. Worse, for five of the eight tests, the percentage of students who passed the test this spring is lower than the percentage that passed last spring. One subject where we have improved compared with last year is economics, where 23 percent of our students passed this year, versus 14 percent last year. The statewide average is 60 percent.
We are in our third ELOST now, and things aren’t getting better. That is reason enough to vote against ELOST IV. Throwing money at a problem is not the same as solving a problem. And spending more money on the same old thing just guarantees that we get more of the same old thing.
But the Board of Education has given us another reason to vote against this sales tax extension. The members are providing a great example of what is wrong with local self-government today.
In order to institute a special purpose sales tax, we first need a special purpose. Then we figure out how much that special purpose costs, and design an appropriate sales tax target. And what is the special purpose for this sales tax? I quote Dr. DeJarnett: “The resolution is inclusive; it involves work at all schools, improvements at all schools . . . It obviously includes a new elementary school. It includes funding for continuing our technology program, that we have infrastructure for our technology, and also allows for the potential purchase of real property.” In other words, the special purposes are (1) a new school, and (2) a slush fund. We can use the slush fund for all those fuzzy non-purpose buzzwords (technology, infrastructure, improvements), and if we collect enough money, we can buy some land, and take it out of the tax digest, leaving the taxpayers with a higher millage rate.
But according to Dr. DeJarnett, the new elementary school isn’t needed. From the minutes of the May 11, 2009 Board of Education meeting: “Dr. DeJarnett recommended that the new school not open any sooner than fall 2012 and only if the economy and enrollment growth warrants.” That doesn’t sound like a pressing need.
In last week’s newspaper article Dr. DeJarnett is quoted as stating that $8 million from ELOST IV “should finish off the cost of the new elementary school.” In the May minutes, he gave a figure of $800,000 in salaries, benefits, and supplies as necessary to operate the new school. So, given these numbers, ELOST IV should be coming in at, say, $12 million for a new school and a really nice slush fund, right?
According to the newspaper, ELOST IV is to be capped at $29.575 million, more than 3 ½ times the amount needed to finish off the new school. Why so high? An ELOST can run only until the cap is reached, or for 60 months, whichever comes first. With this unreachable cap, it will run for the entire 60 months. We will be taxed without relief for five more years.
Why the rush to put this ELOST on the fall ballot, at a cost of approximately $14,500 of our tax monies? Why can this issue not be debated for a year, or a year and a half, at no cost? Dr. DeJarnett explains: “Information about ELOST IV would be more easily disseminated to county voters during the school year as opposed to the summertime when county residents are on vacation. Additionally, voting on ELOST IV would take place around the same time that the board approves their operating budget and sets their millage rate. We didn’t want the ELOST referendum . . . to get wrapped up in the regular budget and millage rate process.”
Allow me to translate: Dr. DeJarnett is the largest employer in the county, and he can assume that his employees will vote for this sales tax, as it benefits them directly. They may also be able to sway parents – taxpayers – to the view that this tax is a good idea. But, they will be on their two months vacation in July, and the other taxpayers may just notice, so soon after April 15, that we are already paying through the nose for our school system. Dr. DeJarnett may not get his slush fund; thus he has decided to spend our tax dollars to schedule an election for a time when his troops will be in town, both to vote and to lobby the taxpayers.
We are in a recession. We are told that the recession will probably end with no growth in employment. Morgan County has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the state, above 9 percent. The Bush tax cuts expire next year, and at that point, everyone who pays federal income tax will see his rates increase, regardless of the status of Obamacare or Cap and Trade. If we waited until next year, there is a very, very good chance that this would not pass, not even with the support of Dr. DeJarnett’s employees, because of the condition of the economy. So, he has decided to lock it in place now, while he can, even though that extra 1 percent tax will be very bad news for our unemployed. It isn’t great news for those who will have less disposable income after the expiration of the Bush tax cuts.
Recently, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania was booed at a town hall meeting when he described the steps his staff took to allow him to make quick decisions on the issues he faced. The booing began when he emphasized the word “quickly.
It appears that the Board of Education and Senator Specter both fail to understand something very simple: we don’t want it done quickly; we want it done correctly.
ELOST IV deserves a “no” vote.
George L. Batten, Jr.