Tax impact of bond concerns farmers

LAFAYETTE – Common themes emerged as District 88 held the second of four scheduled public informational meetings on an upcoming building bond vote Aug. 12.

The meeting was held Tuesday night in Lafayette. The first meeting took place Monday in Hanska, and the third and fourth meetings are scheduled, respectively, in Courtland on Monday, July 28 and in New Ulm on Tuesday, July 29.

The district is asking voters to approve a $46.9 million bond for building a new high school (likely on a site west of town) and for remodeling the three remaining schools.

The plan would convert the current high school into a middle school for grades 5-8; Jefferson Elementary into a school for grades 1-4; and Washington Elementary into a pre-K, kindergarten and community education center.

The $46.9 million bond covers construction, bonding and all other related costs.

Tuesday’s meeting drew a handful of people, and their concerns appeared to mostly coincide with the issues raised in Hanska Monday.

Mainly, farmers in the audience stressed that because the tax impact of the bond is contingent upon property values, and farm-land values are currently very high, the proposal would disproportionately affect farmers.

Speakers said “it is unfair.” Farmers make up a far smaller group of tax payers than suggested by their share of property tax collections, they argued.

In a variation on the same theme, a speaker in Tuesday’s audience noted that he rents and farms about 700 acres of land. The proposed tax increase would be passed onto to him by the land owners, saddling him with a life-long burden, said this speaker.

Farm land in this area is reportedly valued at $7,000-$10,000 per acre.

Officials countered that the way the property tax system works is regulated by state statutes. School districts have no control of how the system is set up and works.

“The best thing you can do is lobby your legislators to change it,” said a district financial adviser.

Other questions asked Tuesday also mirrored questions asked in Hanska.

The district is “selling” the plan in part as a way to increase community access to what it says is insufficient athletic space, indicated a speaker.

She asked if the district would charge athletic associations for use of the athletic facilities in the new high school complex.

Bertrang said he envisions the new facilities as belonging to the community, and does not foresee charges, beyond a requirement that facilities are left in the same condition as they are found.

Another speaker asked what impact the projects, if they happen, would have on traffic congestion at the South Payne Street site.

Bertrang explained that making the present school a campus for younger grades would alleviate both traffic and parking issues.

He also explained how the redesign of this campus would make drop-off and pick-up safer, by separating bus and car traffic.

The plan would also re-design school entrances to make them more secure, he added.

An audience member wondered what happens if the proposal is defeated.

Bertrang explained the district would need more portable buildings than it presently rents; it would continue to rent city athletics facilities for its programs; and it would fund entrance-security and drop-off/pick-up safety upgrades out of operating funds. This approach would take money away from other programs.

Bertrang’s presentation, preceding the questions, outlined the history of buildings in the district and the process that led up to calling a referendum. He explained that a broad-based community task force formed last year studied needs and developed priorities, before recommending the vote and projects.

Bertrang described the rationale behind, and the scope of, the proposed construction and remodeling, and options for the new high school site.

He gave examples to illustrate the tax impact of the bond, and explained the potential benefits of the projects to both schools and community.

He ended with an outline of the potential construction schedule.

The full text of the presentation, which is the same for all scheduled meetings, is also available at the district website, www.newulm.k12.mn.us/ (click on the referendum information tab).

The web site also offers a calculator for voters to estimate the specific tax impact on their property.

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