“Two roads diverged in a wood,” wrote poet Robert Frost, “and I,” his stanza continues, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Two distinct paths loom for tax-supported units of government in Douglas County as they prepare for the months ahead, exemplified last week by the school district and the county. The two appear to be headed different directions.
The school board, on the one hand, is trying to fit as much spending as it can into a bond issue that will be put in front of voters April 2. The only limit recognized by the board is to keep its total package under $93 million, because that’s the maximum amount of new debt the district can issue without seeking state permission. The board contends that a new bond issue of that maximum amount will not result in a tax increase because old bonded indebtedness is being retired.
As the board continues looking at its total package, it has mulled moving some technology and other expenses into other funds, while adding items to the building bond list, most recently about $1.5 million for three early childhood education rooms at Kennedy School.
With decisions about the final priority list and the bond package total expected to be made tonight, it appears the board is intent on using a variety of funding sources to spend as much as possible, without much regard for local economic circumstances or signals from Topeka.
The county, however, had a different reaction when considering that property tax revenues will drop about $2 million next year because of changes in appraised valuations. The impact may be felt first in road and bridge projects that are financed through the county’s annual capital improvements plan.
Essentially, if the flow of money coming in begins to dribble, then construction gets scaled back or delayed. Indeed, decisions were made last week to pare back several projects.
That could be a lesson in prudence for the school board and district administration. The forecast is for a $295 million state deficit in 2013 related to tax cuts from the previous legislative session. The governor’s budget office already has recommended an 8 percent funding reduction for higher education. Did the school board get a message?
Why would the board maximize district spending in the face of expected lower local property tax revenues? Will it have to come back to residents for a tax hike to make up for that lost revenue plus other operating expenditures that are not likely to be financed because the state itself is broke?
Which path will make all the difference?