ELN: District 51, city issues rejected
Couldn’t be 'worse timing’ for issues
The plummet of the national economy in the weeks leading up to the election may have sounded the death knell for the two largest bond issues and tax increases facing Mesa County residents this year.
Voters Tuesday night rebuffed a $185 million bond issue and $6 million property-tax increase for School District 51 and a $98 million public safety initiative for the city of Grand Junction that included a sales-tax increase and Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights override.
The dual defeats likely will result in year-round school sessions and deal a major blow to the city’s plans to build seven new public safety buildings.
At 11 p.m., the $185 million bond was losing 53.4 percent to 46.6 percent, while the $6 million mill levy override was down 60.1 percent to 39.9 percent.
Meanwhile, a proposed quarter-cent sales-tax increase in the city was failing 53.6 percent to 46.4 percent.
The TABOR override was down 59.1 percent to 40.9 percent.
School board member Harry Butler said the downturning economy “weighed heavily on voters” and was the reason the bond failed.
City Manager Laurie Kadrich and Mayor Gregg Palmer offered the same explanation for the rejection of the city’s ballot measures.
“Frankly, I don’t think it could be worse timing,” Kadrich said. “Even though the economic indicators in the Grand Valley remain positive, the perception of what’s happening or what might be happening (nationally) is a lot scarier than six months ago.”
Reactions to initial results showing the school bond’s shortfall from supporters of the bond ranged from school board President Leslie Kiesler saying she “hadn’t heard anyone singing yet,” to district Long-Range Planning Committee member John Williams expressing shock with a more blunt response.
“We’re done,” he said.
District 51 polling showed a majority support when the board voted to put the bond on the ballot in August, spokesman Jeff Kirtland said, which he claimed is evidence that potential factors such as low Colorado Student Assessment Program scores did not impact voters.
“We weren’t the first organization to get caught off-guard by what the economy did,” Superintendent Tim Mills said.
Frances Justman of Fruita, however, said she voted against the bond package because of the $1 million that District 51 paid to Mesa State College for use of the college’s athletic facilities.
“That was school district money, and that was never explained to the voters,” she said.
Mills said work “starts tomorrow” to compile data on backup plans to accommodate the growth in student enrollment the district has seen. The district next week will present that information to the school board, which will make the final decision, he said.
Melissa Callahan deVita, executive director of support services, recommended year-round school sessions to the Board of Education last month, meaning three-quarters of students at any given time would rotate, having a quarter of the year off. Mills said year-round schooling remains the most viable option because it maximizes facility use, but the district will probably examine the purchase of modular classrooms as well.
“It’s going to be a great challenge, and it will take us a while,” Mills said. “We’re talking about finding money in an already tight budget.”
Implementing year-round schools could cost as much as $20 million for a fall 2010 start date, Mills said.
The district will “protect the classroom” as much as possible while finding money in the budget, Mills said, and “work our way out from there.”
Board member Ron Rowley said he didn’t see year-round schooling as an option because the district doesn’t have the funds to finance it.
“The only thing we can do is crowd in kids,” he said. “I don’t see any other option.”
The bond package would have paid for a replacement of Orchard Mesa Middle School, two new high schools, two new elementary schools, various repair and maintenance projects and land acquisition.
Jessica Silva, an X-ray technician at St. Mary’s Hospital, said she voted against the bond package because of the tax increase her property taxes would have seen.
The projected tax impact of the bond package, which would have been covered by an increase in local property taxes for the 25-year life of the bond, is $4.40 a month per $100,000 of a home’s value.
“I don’t have kids, but I voted for the last bond four years ago,” Silva said. “They can slow themselves down a bit.”
Mills said the district would have to separate itself from the results of this election before looking ahead to the possibility of asking for a bond in 2010, which would be soonest the district could put another package to a vote.
City officials appear less certain of the direction they’ll head in the wake of the failure of the public safety initiative, which would have hiked the sales-tax rate from 2.75 percent to 3 percent and allowed the city to permanently retain and spend revenue above the limits allowed by TABOR. The tax increase would have come off the books and the rate dropped back to 2.75 percent when the city paid off the Riverside Parkway project debt in 2015 or 2016. The TABOR override would have then taken effect.
The initiative would have featured a main facility containing a new police station, fire administration, a new 911 dispatch center, a municipal courtroom and an emergency operations center.
There also would have been a new downtown fire station to replace Fire Station No. 1, a parking garage, an annex building to store evidence, vehicles and supplies, and three neighborhood fire stations.
Palmer said he doesn’t foresee the city returning to voters with a pared-down initiative, adding he believes asking for a sales-tax increase represented the best funding method. When asked if it made sense for the city to come back to the ballot at the city municipal election in April, Palmer said he wanted to talk with other council members about all available options
Opponents said the $98 million price tag was too high and that some elements of the project were excessive.
Grand Junction resident Jim Shults said he believes the multiple local tax measures combined with the national economic storm doomed the initiative.
“The bottom line on it is the citizens could do something about tax and spend, and they just said, ‘Whoa, we can do better,’” he said. “Everyone is just getting tired of getting dinged.”