November 23, 2010

When spending is actually saving

There’s an inescapable irony about a public agency, which through wise planning and economic happenstance, gives taxpayers more than anticipated for their hand-earned dollars – and gets lampooned for it.

Stranger still has been the fact that the complainers (it being impossible to know how many there are) waited until the last minute, and some even after, before crying foul.

Such has been the saga of the Tale of the Saved Money, involving the Redmond School District.

See, once upon a time, in a community welcoming new people every day, the schools were bursting at the seams. Classrooms were full, hallways were crowded and students were stuffed into modular buildings on the playground. To add insult to injury, several of the schools were very old and badly in need of repairs.

Twice the school leaders asked the community for funds for a new high school, its most pressing need, and twice voters said no. Finally, a request for a new high school was dropped and a more modest plea for a grade and middle school submitted to the community.

That request passed muster and the two building were constructed, at the height of the building boom, within the budget voters had approved.

Fast forward a few more years and the high school is still packed and populations in the middle and elementary buildings are climbing. Anticipating it will need to reclaim a former middle school, now in use by the overcrowded high school, to meet ever-growing student populations, the school district crafts a new plan: ask voters for enough funds for a new elementary and high school and to do some basic infrastructure repairs at several of its oldest schools.

It’s an ambitious plan and bold, considering the community’s past failure to support the idea of a new high school. But given the fact that this community has been one of Oregon’s fastest growing for years, the school leaders feel confident of their chances, and indeed, voters agree and approve a bond measure for those three things.

We can title this chapter What Happened When The Sky Fell.

Shortly after finishing the design process for the two new schools, which was done with a sharp eye on the budget and ever-rising construction costs, the bottom falls out of the economy. The school district starts getting bids for its construction projects only to find that hungry contractors are more willing to work for less profit than they were when the bond was approved and cost estimates drawn up.

What that means is the high school, which was designed without sports grandstands because it wasn’t thought possible given the $80 million budget the facility had to work with, now had more options. And the elementary school, originally expected to use every cent of its expected $20 million budget, was constructed for just over half that. And the $10 million for various upgrades to seriously degraded older schools could go farther and accomplish more projects.

When The Sky Fell the taxpayers, who’d already given the OK for the district to spend $110 million on three specific items – two schools and repairs to old schools – now got more than they asked for, more return for the original investment.

So what’s the beef?

Good question. When the district realized it would have all these savings to reinvest in school building projects it started looking at its “deferred maintenance” list with a keener eye. Deferred maintenance is what happens when budgets are tight and monies are funneled into operations – personnel and programs – rather than repairs. As any homeowner can tell you, once you put off replacing some of those roof tiles for few years to save a few bucks, your $500 one-time repair can quickly become a $10,000 new roof.

The district also realized that while it was perfectly with its legal rights to spend all $110 million on the items listed in the bond measure, morally it might be better to get input from the community on whether taxpayers wanted the savings credited back to them. And that is what it did, over a course of many months, using local media, school websites and newsletters and visits with local civic groups.

Eventually, after waiting to hear from as many people as wanted to be heard (and the overwhelming majority saying ‘spend the money’), the school board agreed the best long-term investment for the community was to spend all the money on school repairs.

Despite this due process, some community taxpayers are complaining loudly, saying the district has no right to spend this bond money, despite what voters authorized it to do. They want the money given back to them, despite the reality that the annual property tax cuts would scarcely fill their gas tanks. It wouldn’t be the average $150,000 homeowner who’d see any money to speak of, or the more than 60 percent of renters in our community, it would be the large corporate landowners and the scattering of expensive residential property owners.

Common sense should prevail here. Spending $15 million today on very overdue upgrades will save the district (which means the taxpayers) 10 times that down the road.

No comments: