Marsha Berkbigler column: My problems with AB 46
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ms. Berkbigler penned this note to constituents prior to the first of three public hearings before the county commission on Assembly Bill 46. That first meeting took place Tuesday evening in Reno. Look to future print editions for information on upcoming meetings. AB 46 includes an amendment that allows the Washoe County Board of Commissioners to determine whether to enact a proposal that would generate funding for critical school repairs and maintenance in WCSD. The proposal needs to be approved by 4 of the 5 county commissioners by Jan. 1, 2014 to be enacted.
As most of you are probably aware by now, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 46, which places on the Washoe County Commission the responsibility of deciding whether to raise specific taxes to benefit the Washoe County School District.
The proposed tax increases include a property tax increase of five cents on every $100/valuation and sales tax in the amount of a quarter percent on every business who collects sales taxes.
Three things about this bill cause me grave concern: the fact that the legislature, who has the constitutional responsibility to raise taxes, has established a new normal in the State of Nevada by enabling the County Commission to raise taxes for another elected body for which we have no financial oversight; the fact that there are no reporting requirements; and the fact that the definition of what it can be used for is not specifically dedicated to repair and maintenance of existing schools.
Of course since I’m a firm believer that we cannot raise taxes on our citizens to fix every one of the government’s problems also causes me grave concern.
I’ve had the opportunity to speak with numerous groups and citizens about this issue since the Governor signed the final bill, and in general they have expressed similar concerns to those I’ve listed above.
Most of us are willing to pay more taxes for schools if we can be assured that the money is going to exactly what we were told it would be used for. Also like me, many people have expressed concerns that if there is no oversight and reporting, WCSD might be back in a few years asking for more money for the same purpose.
I recently had the opportunity to review WCSD’s budget, which shows $143,134,222 in their capital account. WCSD spends approximately $30,000,000 each year doing maintenance and repairs on schools, so the fund will be reduced to something below $100,000,000 by the end of this year.
I think it’s important to point out that the amount needed to repair schools is approximately $500,000,000. Unfortunately, Washoe County School District does not have a stream of money dedicated to capital projects, as does every other County School District in Nevada.
When I discussed this with Washoe County School District Superintendent Pedro Martinez, he indicated the lack of a separate amount of money coming in for capital has resulted in WCSD having to allocate funds to capital from their general operating budget.
Much of the money WCSD receives is tied to property and sales taxes, and we are all aware of the economic recession we’ve just gone through that resulted in a large loss of funds to WCSD.
WCSD is an independent elected body that does not report to the County Commission, so there is no reason why they would have come before the Commission to discuss school capital projects.
Since you elected me in November, we have not been approached by the school district to discuss AB 46 or any other issue.
As a result of the decision of the Legislature to pass its responsibility for increasing taxes to the County Commission, we will be holding public hearings to hear from WCSD what they plan to use the money for.
We know they will attempt to answer the many questions all of us have so please come to the hearings and let us know your concerns and/or support.
In summary here’s my problem. I believe we need to assure the schools are repaired and that our children can learn in a safe and secure facility. I believe that a dedicated stream of money for capital repairs is probably necessary to assure our schools are safe and secure.
I believe that economic development projects often depend on good schools, I also believe we need to understand why WCSD has not previously dedicated funds to make repairs to prohibit our schools from the (according the district) deplorable shape they are currently in and what strategy the district has planned for accountability.
I hope you will come before us and let the Commissioners know if you believe new capital dollars are the right solution for Washoe County.
I believe you elected me to make these tough decisions, and I’m willing to step up and do that, even if it angers some of my constituents.
However, I need clear and convincing evidence that this is the best thing we can do for the students in our County schools before I will be ready to cast my vote.
Marsha Berkbigler is District 1 commissioner for Washoe County, which includes the communities of Incline Village and Crystal Bay.