Washoe commissioners reject school tax

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Washoe commissioners reject school tax

A bill that would have bumped up taxes to fund school repair projects in Washoe County died Tuesday night in front of the Washoe County Board of Commissioners without a vote. Commissioners say they don't expect to reconsider the bill before the January 1st deadline.

Assembly Bill 46 would have raised the sales tax by a quarter of a percent and property tax by a nickel. Its defeat came after months of debate and an aggressive campaign by the school district. 

Commissioner Kitty Jung was the only commissioner in support of the bill by end of the night.

"We don't invest in our education system, and that is why, we were first in recession and the last to pull out of it. People don't want to come to a community that doesn't value K-12 and even K-16."

Jung says without the money, the school district will have to make cuts to programs because it will soon run out of the remaining almost 100 million dollars in its capital projects fund. AB 46 would have generated about 20 million dollars a year. 

All around, commissioners praised the school district for how it engaged the public and the county on the bill.

"We have the best campaign that you have ever run, Washoe County School district, with respect to getting your message out and in front of the people.”

That's Commissioner Vaughn Hartung, who was not in favor of the bill.

"But the problem that we have here today is that we have very good people with good intent that disagree."

Hartung was speaking to the dozens of residents who voiced their opposition to the bill at the meeting. Chief among those concerns: the constitutionality of passing a tax without a 2/3 vote of the legislature, the school district's alleged lack of accountability and poor management of funds, the actual fiscal impact of the tax on residents and the fear of setting a precedent that could bring about more taxes. 

Resident Bob Daily even took it upon himself to demonstrate with a copy of the constitution.

"Without your unwavering commitment and fidelity to this founding document, we have nothing." 

Supporters of the bill talked about the value of education for the community and economic development, the district's own results in areas like graduation and student achievement and the overwhelming need. Former teacher Peggy Liebown says while no one likes the process of AB 46.

"But darnet, we need to remember the goal and the goal is to make a good working situation for the students of Washoe County Schools, where they can go into a school and the entry door heater is not turned off because maybe it rained that day and if the heater’s on, it heats up the waters that have erupted from the walls, and you can smell mold.”

Among the supporters, were members of the business community, the association of realtors, parents, teachers and lawmakers, such as Sparks City Councilwoman Julia Ratti.

Ratti says schools are also key community centers for many neighborhoods in Sparks and Reno.

“You may be able to make more progress for our neighborhoods in one action here tonight than I will be able to make in eight years on the city council.”

In doing its full diligence, the county considered any other possible source of revenue for the tax, including even a potential medical marijuana tax, but in the end most tax dollars were already committed or were not feasible. There was also a possible letter of intent between the district and the county stating the district would be willing to assume any risk from lawsuits and assuringthe money would be spent appropriately, but several said those were not truly binding documents.

In the end, Chairman David Humke said exceeding the statutory limitations on the property tax, which the tax increase would do, is significant.

"Those statutory limitations mean something, just to do away from them with the stroke of a pen, is not satisfactory."

Commissioner Bonnie Weber agreed that it must go to the vote of the people.

“I’ve tried to figure out a way listening and having conversations with so many of you. I just can’t get past it, and I believe that the vote of the people is so important.”

And that was the closing sentiment of the night. Following the meeting, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said the district will be forced to reconsider projects they had previously approved because they don't anticipate any new revenues to be generated from the rollover bonds until in approximately 2018.