by Howard Stephenson
On February 4, three Utah school districts capitalized on low voter turnout to push through some of the largest tax hikes in state history. In Granite and Jordan school districts, voter turnout was a meager 5.5%. In Carbon school district, voter turnout was just 15%. With voter apathy comes the ability of school districts to rally the troops and push through significant, permanent tax increases. Jordan school district reaped large rewards with the approval of a $281 million bond- the largest in state history.
But voter apathy wasn’t the only reason for the low turnout. School districts were in charge of the elections, and polling places were changed or combined. The elimination of the usual polling places produced confusion among those wishing to vote and many were unable to locate the correct polling places.
But the most egregious complaint about the February special election is that these districts were planning to seek voter approval of these increases last November when voters went to the polls in the General Election. Apparently these school boards didn’t want to risk losing the election with a large turnout and opted, instead for a special election where a low turnout could enable a few special interests to sway the results of the election.
But things used to be worse. Until recently, local taxing entities could set a special election for any day of the year. A few years ago I successfully sponsored legislation which allowed special elections to be held only once each quarter, to hopefully give more publicity to those election dates. But based on the turnout in recent special elections, the public still doesn’t realize when these elecitons are held. I believe it is time the legislature changed the law to require that special tax elections are only valid if voter turnout is at least, say, 25 percent. Better yet, tax decisions shouold only be allowed at regular November elections.
Here are the results of the February elections:
Granite School District: 62% of the voters approved a 0.000200 increase in the voted leeway. The tax increase will generate $2.8 million additional revenue annually for the school district. Property taxes will increase by $17.60 for a $160,000 home and $32.00 for a $160,000 business.
Jordan School District: Approximately 70% of those voting on February 4 approved a $281 million school construction bond while 60% agreed to increase the combined voted and board leeway from 0.001400 to the statutory maximum of 0.002000. The voted leeway increase is intended to be used for maintenance and operation costs of the twenty two schools that will be built with the $281 million bond. District officials are stating that the $281 million bond will not necessitate a tax increase since new growth will increase the number of taxpayers. Also, new debt will be issued as existing debt is retired. However, without the bond, taxes would automatically decrease as existing debt is retired. The voted leeway, once fully implemented, will generate $9 million of additional revenue per year and will increase taxes by $33 per year for a $100,000 home and $60 per year for a $100,000 business.
Carbon School District: 50.6% of the voters barely approved increasing the voted leeway by 19%. The school district’s revenue yield from the tax hike will be approximately $1.5 million annually. Property taxes will increase by $60.50 for a $100,000 home and $110 for a $100,000 business. District officials say they intend to use the increase to make teacher salaries more competitive. With the tax increase Carbon School District’s property tax yield per student will increase to a whopping 64% higher than the state average.
by Howard Stephenson