Columbia voters weigh impact of school bond issue, tax levy

Thursday, March 29, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The Columbia School Board candidates have come out in support of the district's proposed bond issue and property tax levy increase. But Jim Shaw, who raises beef cattle north of Columbia, is still on the fence about how to vote.

Shaw, like other residents within the district, will be affected by the proposals on Tuesday's ballot based on the real and personal property he owns. Shaw said he wants to support education, but he is concerned about the property tax increases.

"I want our schools to have everything they need to provide quality education, but I have this gut feeling that there’s a lot of waste in the school district, and they're not being completely up front about the way things are," he said.

For some, the effects of the proposals are minor compared with the benefits they could bring to Columbia Public Schools, such as cushioning the decline in state funding and reducing overcrowding in schools. For others, a rise in property taxes just isn't feasible in current economic conditions.

Tax levy increase: a burden or a benefit?

Shaw has worked in agriculture his whole life and is dependent on having the land, machinery and livestock necessary to make his living. He said, in general, production agriculture requires a great deal of assets. These would be included in the property taxed by the proposed levy increase.

The tax levy would increase by 40 cents per $100 of assessed valuation of real and personal property. The funds raised would help the district pay for operating costs, such as maintaining programs, improving class sizes and exploring technology needs in classrooms.

To pass, the tax levy requires a simple majority of voter support.

People with business-related assets would be more affected by the increase than homeowners, Shaw said, because business owners are taxed at a higher rate.

"Any tax increase is kind of a slap in the face for those of us engaged in production agriculture," he said.

Jim Beckett, a car collector, is also concerned about the tax levy increase — not for his collection, but because his property is worth more than the average $150,000 figure the district uses to calculate increases. Beckett said he thinks other locations in Columbia are worth more than this average, too. He estimates that his taxes will increase by about 10 percent.

"I'm all for education and that kind of thing, but frankly, I think we've gone overboard," Beckett said.

Beckett said that to him, going overboard was less about taxes and more about the government giving money to certain causes and programs instead of education. He said he thinks there are other ways to raise funds instead of a property tax, and if the economy were in better shape, the proposals would be less of an issue to him.

"I think it's just not the right time," he said. "It's sort of like hitting people when they're down."

In chamber's view, a necessary step

Chamber of Commerce president Don Laird disagrees. He said he fully supports the tax levy increase and $50 million bond issue, which would include a 12-cent debt service levy increase and go toward new construction, renovation of existing facilities and technology over a certain cost.

Laird said that when the chamber's board agreed to openly support the proposals, it voted unanimously.

"It's just one of those things that we think is important for our community," Laird said. "We represent a business community … and we made a decision based on the response of people from the board and from business people in general."

The bond issue money would be used in November 2014 at the earliest. The proposal needs 57 percent voter approval to pass.

Blue Ridge Elementary School PTA president Mary Flatt said she, too, supports the tax levy and bond issue. She said the Blue Ridge Elementary PTA supports it as well.

Flatt said she thinks the tax levy should pass because it will support the district as it expands, help avoid overcrowding issues and eliminate trailers. She also said it would attempt to compensate the district for declining state funding.

"It's a very important issue, and we need to address it as a community," Flatt said.

But the Columbia community isn't the only one affected. Carmen Adams, one of the owners of Adams & Witt Property Professionals property management company, said her out-of-town property owners could be most impacted because they do not know anything about the bond issue or tax levy.

Adams said the property owners primarily care about their bottom lines, and passing the proposals could increase property taxes, which would change owners' priorities and rent levels.

Because rent levels could change, owners would have to consider cutting costs in other areas if taxes increase. Adams said it was important for property owners to educate themselves about each proposal.

Sarah Read, president of Columbia Parents for Public Schools, said the bond issue and tax levy are important for the district's future.

"I think a lot of people see the need for it," Read said. "If we want to impact these kids' futures, we have to pass the proposals. It's one of the best long-term decisions a school district can make."

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Ray Shapiro March 29, 2012 | 2:19 p.m.

I'd like to see some lawn posters in front of homes stating:
"Vote No on property tax increases and let CPS become better stewards of the monies they currently receive."

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