School district should conduct its own voter communication

“It’s déjà vu all over again,” was the observation of baseball great Yogi Berra — and my own when I read that School District 51 was again considering a TABOR variance that would require voter approval.

I also noted the district had hired George K. Baum & Co. to assist it in surveying the attitudes of Mesa County voters — this to the tune of $48,000. I didn’t remember the Baum firm as pollsters or the focus of its business being simple surveys, and it’s not. They are investment bankers whose main business is the creation and sale of public financing instruments.

However, some states require voter approval for such indebtedness, and in Colorado that includes any attempt to collect or keep money in excess of that allowed by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights portion of the Constitution. To help convince voters to do that, the company, which lists School District 51 as a prior client, has an entire section devoted to what it calls “Public Policy/Elections.”

The subtitle on its website for this page includes the announcement, “We Deliver Big When It Comes to Public Policy & Election Services.” It also says: “550+ Successful Bond and Tax Measures Since the Passage of TABOR” and “Success at the Polls Even in Uncertain Times.”

Also included are, “Access to Both our Experienced In-House Election Team and Outside Public Affairs Consultants and Pollsters.” It also has available a “team of public policy, election, communications and survey research professionals to serve our public finance clients and their respective campaign committees.”

Services include: “Voter Identification and Targeting ... Branding ... Community Opinion Surveys.” Also, “Get out the Vote Efforts.”

So, as taxpayers, you pay the bill for the school district to hire a firm to help the district pass a measure to override TABOR. You’re sort of paying to have yourself lobbied so the district can have more money to operate important functions — like paying to have you lobbied and conduct TABOR override elections.

The Baum people are experienced in matters that are never far from the mind of school administration. Case in point. At the 69th convention of the Colorado Association of School Boards, George K. Baum & Co. participated in such panel discussions as “Passing Your Bond and Mill Levy Override in 2010” and “The Mind of the Colorado Voter: How Will Districts Fare at the Polls in 2010.”

There’s nothing wrong with a company providing services or giving advice that promotes its business. The problem lies in expending public funds on outside business interests to convince taxpayers to increase debt or spending.

A larger question is: What if the churlish public continues to refuse to increase funds available to increasingly inept bureaucrats who apparently cannot even take the pulse of their own constituency? And these TABOR elections are not free. The last one cost taxpayers $143,000, only to be defeated in 2008.

This raises the possibility that the district — in some future bond election (what is being considering now does not involve bonds) — might again consider using certificates of participation as a substitute for bond votes that seem doomed to fail.

The certificates are a financing loophole that allow public entities to raise funds without seeking voter approval. The city of Grand Junction employed this tactic when voters would not approve tax increases for their public safety project. Certificates are, according to the state treasurer, “a lease financing mechanism where the government enters into an agreement to make regular lease payments for the use of an asset over some period, after which the title for the asset transfers to the government.”

Or as I like to think of it, “Rent to Own Government.”

This mechanism can be an attractive approach for public entities that do not see success looming at the polls for bond issues. George K. Baum & Co. has experience with these materials and lists its involvement in approximately nine such issuances in Colorado in 2010, including with an Eagle County school district.

The real problem is a public entity, with its own communications department but seemingly unable to effectively communicate with its constituents, repeatedly asking overburdened taxpayers for rescue. George K. Baum & Co. seems like a fine business that offers good service. It is not the problem.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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