A committee has put the finishing touches on a ballot question that will ask Washoe County voters at the November general election to approve a permanent increase in the sale tax to finance school construction and repairs to meet student growth.
The committee, which is independent of the Washoe County School District, approved the ballot question details at a brief meeting last Friday at Sparks City Hall. The question will go to the Washoe County Commission for formal placement on the ballot.
If approved by voters, the measure will increase the sales tax rate in the county by 0.54 percent, from 7.725 percent to 8.265 percent. That would be the highest rate of any county in the state, surpassing the 8.150 percent rate imposed on sales in Clark County.
The rate hike would amount to an additional $5.40 for every $1,000 in purchases subject to the tax. Some items, including groceries, prescriptions and utilities, aren’t taxed. Most services also are tax exempt.
Members of the committee, officially known as the Public Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee, decided that the sales tax increase, if approved, would not sunset or expire once the goal of $781 million is raised for school construction projects that will be built over a nine-year period.
The new tax revenue will be used to secure and pay off bonds that will be sold for the construction projects. School bonds are paid off over a 20-year period. Because of bonding requirements, the earliest the tax hike could automatically expire would be in 30 years.
Committee Chairman and former Sparks City Manager Shaun Carey argued in favor of making the tax hike permanent because he said the revenue will continue to be needed for growth after the $781 million is spent in nine years.
That $781 million, he said at an earlier committee meeting, “will only catch us up” by filling a gap created by falling revenue during the recession.
He said the Washoe County School District faces a structural deficit because it relies primarily on property tax revenue. The sales tax revenue, he said, will help create a more stable financial foundation for schools.
Committee member Mike Kazmierski, head of the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada, agreed that sales tax money will provide diversity to the school district’s revenue stream and therefore “should be a part of our permanent funding for school infrastructure.”
“There’s some skepticism about that word (sunset) in the first place,” Kazmierski said. “So I’m not sure you’re going to sway a whole lot of (voters) by putting a 30-year sunset in there.”
The committee, in a document outlining the ballot question, said the sales tax increase will allow the district to construct and renovate schools facilities to alleviate overcrowding and eliminate a multi-track year-round calendar and double sessions at schools, while also addressing repair needs.
Officials have identified the construction projects for the $781 million as follows:
School repairs over nine years: $180 million
Addition to Damonte Ranch High School: $30 million
Three new middle schools: $165 million. The schools would be built in the Sun Valley, Arrow Creek and Spanish Springs areas
Three new high schools: $330 million. They would be built in the Cold Springs, South McCarran/Butler Ranch and Wildcreek areas. The Wildcreek school would replace Hug High School
Repurposing of Hug High School into a specialty school: $20 million.
Two new elementary schools, one in the South Meadows area and the other in the North Valleys/Spanish Springs area: $46 million.
Seven new elementary schools to avoid a year-round calendar: $161 million.
Purchase of property to expand Sparks High School: $4 million.
Renovations of older schools in the district’s core area: $50 million.
Expansion of the district’s central kitchen: $3 million.
Expansion of the transportation yard for school buses and district vehicles: $7 million.
Adjustment for inflation: $100 million.
The Washoe County school board, which has been embroiled in controversy, is taking action in an attempt to separate itself from the push to generate more money for school construction.
While state law requires the board to have the final say in spending matters, the board is creating a separate comittee of public officials, experts and others to review and make recommendations on school construction projects. If the school board disagrees with a recommendation from the committee, the board must state its reasoning in writing and at public meeting.