In a special board meeting, May 18, the Houston School Board passed a resolution calling for a special election on August 8 regarding the proposed building project for the school. The roll call vote ended 5-2 with board members Marissa Bailey, Mark Swenson, Richard Erdmann, Mimi Carlson, and Niccki Johnson voting in favor and Arlin Peterson and Josh Norlien opposed.
Before the board voted on the resolution, SiteLogiQ’s Andy Fields presented information regarding the new assessed property values question of the previous meeting. Superintendent Mary Morem and Fields had met with Baker Tilly for the updated information.
Examples of the new estimated tax increases are: a home assessed at $200,000 would see a yearly tax increase of $445 if only question one passes and $565 more if both questions pass. Commercial industrial property assessed at $500,000 would see increases of $2,280 and $2,839 respectively. Homestead agricultural property with a value of $5,200 per acre would see increases of $1.92 per acre per year with only question one passing and $2.39 per acre per year if both questions pass.
If voters vote yes, a 20-year bond would go on sale in February 2024. Fields explained the much smaller increase in taxes if question two is approved. Because Houston has high numbers of students between MNVA and the brick and mortar schools, and there is a low amount of commercial property in the district, equalization kicks in for question two on the ballot. With this additional funding, the projects in question two become less expensive for taxpayers.
Chairwoman Mimi Carlson declared that she wants everyone to understand that they would get “more bang for the buck” by voting yes on both questions.
When discussion turned to wondering if everything should be included in just one question, Nickki Johnson commented, “I’m afraid if we vote for all or nothing, we might get nothing.”
A tax calculator will be made available online for voters to calculate what their personal tax increase would be. Carlson stressed that people need to be able to find that information themselves in order to get an accurate number.
Arlin Peterson noted that each farmer is likely to have several categories of land value on his farm. Farmers will need to know the valuation and acreage of each type to calculate their tax increase.
Peterson presented questions he had been asked by residents. His first question was, “Why are the people supporting the referendum and presenting this not residents of the district?”
The reply was that the board members were district residents; other involved people were experts in their fields.
Peterson’s second question was, “Why did the school district buy the church and the ABLE building, if they didn’t have the money for it?”
Morem answered that the school did have the money for the purchases. The church was purchased using general funds while the school was granted lease levy authority for the ABLE building.
The third question pointed out the high inflation recently and other tax increases. With wages not keeping up with all these increased expenses, the questioner felt this was not the time for another increase in taxes.
Niccki Johnson responded that taxes are always going up. She felt it was the board’s responsibility to get the needs of the district before the voters.
Peterson commented that it was important to consider the timing; he noted that with the huge tax increase the residents of Valley High saw this year they were unlikely to support the referendum.
Mark Swenson chimed in, “There’s never a perfect time for anything.”
Carlson added, “I’m uncomfortable as well, but we have some really great ideas and uses that will engage the whole community.”
Following the discussion, Carlson read the exact wording of the two ballot questions. The first question asked for a yes or no vote on authorizing the board to issue general obligation bonds not to exceed $18, 225,000 to provide funds to construct secure entrances and safety improvements to high school and elementary school; building a new high school media center, cafeteria, and art classrooms; converting the existing media center to high school offices; renovations and ADA-accessibility improvements to restrooms and locker rooms; improvements to parking lots; relocation of the storage garage; installation of a fire suppression system at the high school; conversion of principal’s office to collaboration space; construction of a multipurpose cafeteria and kitchen addition at the elementary and repurposing that space as a music room.
The second question asked if question one was approved, would the voters approve an additional amount not to exceed $12,155,000 to construct an auditorium and performing arts addition that would include flexible academic spaces, a new band room and restrooms; and the repurposing of the existing band room into a community exercise and weight room, concessions area, and an athletics entrance.
Now the board and school have until the August 8 election to educate the voters about the referendum. Houston School district residents will need to carefully weigh the pros and cons personally as they prepare to vote.