If the presidential election doesn’t get voters to the polls, Washoe County Question 1 should

By Ruben Kimmelman

Mural at Procter R. Hug High School. (Photo by Ruben Kimmelman)

RENO, Nev. — Washoe County voters will decide in November if an approximate half percent increase in sales tax is necessary for the renovation, repair, acquisition and construction of public school facilities.

The Washoe County School District will receive $781 million in tax revenue over the next nine years if a majority of county voters vote yes on Washoe County Question 1 (WC-1). This will be supplemented by the district’s current capital funds of $315 million to pay for the capital projects in their entirety, which it estimates at $1.1 billion.

Hannah Jackson is a student at the University of Nevada, Reno and a volunteer outreach coordinator for SOS Washoe. SOS is a group advocating for a yes vote on WC-1.

The ballot measure, which she said has lots of bipartisan support, is important to her because she went to Washoe County public schools and has two siblings currently attending Reno High School. The ballot question should be important to all University of Nevada, Reno students because they are members of the community, she said.

“People won’t want to move here if they know we don’t value education,” Jackson said, specifically referring to companies like Tesla, who are moving operations to the area.

Jackson said that one-third of county schools have not been renovated in 30 years and 20 percent are currently functioning over capacity.

The district recently passed a threshold requirement that says once a school reaches 120 percent of capacity it will have to function on double sessions, Jackson said. This means two populations of students will be attending one school, one population attending from 6 a.m. to 12 p.m. then another population arriving and attending until 6 p.m.

“This is awful because you have kids at the bus stop at 4:30 a.m. and extracurriculars will suffer because of scheduling,” Jackson said.

“Vote yes and vote in general, it’s so important. My birthday is November 5th and my only wish is for you to vote yes on WC-1,” Jackson said.

A graduate student at University of Nevada, Reno and a teacher at Procter R. Hug High School, Sonia Kretschmer said if WC-1 is approved she does not think the funding will be allocated fairly.

She believes the district has a negative bias towards Title 1 schools, schools with high percentages of students from low-income families, like Procter R. Hug, because they receive federal funding. Federal funding which cannot be used for repairs or construction according to Kretschmer. A t-shirt wraps a leaking pipe at Procter R. Hug High School.

“Hug High School is so dilapidated, we don’t need repairs, we need a whole new school,” Kretschmer said, even though she loves her current classroom’s view of Mt. Rose.

“I can’t put a thumbtack into the wall because it will release asbestos.”

Kretschmer doesn’t believe WC-1 will be approved either. “The school board has screwed up so much, we don’t have faith anymore,” Kretschmer said.

Retired Reno police officer, Jeff Church, hopes Kretschmer’s prediction is correct.

According to Church, the monetary estimates of repairs, renovations and construction by the school district are based on needs for the next 10 years, but the tax has no sunset, meaning the sales tax increase will remain in effect after the 10 year period.

Also, WC-1 has no specific wording that disallows supplantation, Church said. Supplantation happens when the school district pays a plumber with funds that might be generated for capital repairs. In turn, this frees up space to increase salaries for administrators because the burden of paying the plumber no longer comes from funds for employee salaries, Church said.

Church questions the school district’s estimates on the costs of construction as well. He said the district estimates $135 million for construction of a new high school while he has found estimates as low as $72 million in his research. Also, the numbers the school district uses for over capacity are inflated because they do not take into account portable classrooms, Church said.

The oversight committee that will oversee how the funds generated by the tax increase will be spent, Church said, is not comprised by citizens, as a press release by the school district states, but by elected officials and special interests. The special interests being local contractors and developers according to Church. There are no educators on the committee, Church said, a complaint which is shared by Kretschmer as well.

Church not only opposes the tax increase, but is suing the county as well.

According to Church, Nevada law says counties must compose committees to write arguments that will appear on voters’ ballots both for and against ballot questions. According to state law there must be three people on each committee. While there can be less than two people on a committee if the county has exercised due diligence to fill all three seats with no success, committees cannot have more than three people. The committees for WC-1 had four members on the committee in favor and two on the committee in opposition.

“I don’t like somebody to pee on my leg and tell me that it’s rain,” Church said.

According to University of Nevada, Reno economics professor Mehmet Serkan Tosun, sales taxes are usually regressive, which means they involve a higher burden on lower-income members of the community. This is especially true in comparison to income or property taxes, which are considered progressive, meaning they place a higher burden on those with the highest incomes.

Tosun said the effect of a sales tax increase on the consumer can be doubled because business-to-business sales are also subject to taxation, and almost 100 percent of the time the business will shift this burden to the consumer by increasing prices.

However, sales taxes are broad based, meaning they can generate a lot of revenue from only a small percentage of increase because of the wide population they draw from, Tosun said.

Tosun said education has significant positive externalities and that businesses are looking for educated workers.

“It is the art of tax policy, not the science,” Tosun said.

Tosun’s colleague and project manager at the Center for Regional Studies, part of University of Nevada, Reno’s College of Business, Brian Bonnenfant conducted a study which estimated the financial impact of the proposed tax increase on the average Washoe County family. Bonnenfant said he was asked by EDAWN, who’s president, Mike Kazmierski, has been a vocal proponent of WC-1 and member of the Public Schools Overcrowding and Repair Needs Committee, to conduct the study.

The study, based on the Consumer Expenditure Survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, found that the tax increase would cost the average Washoe County family $89 per year, based on a median family income of $75,564 for a family of four. Bonnenfant’s study also concludes that 13.7% of Washoe County taxable sales are made by tourists.

Bonnenfant contradicted a statement made by Church that Washoe consumers would leave the county to make big-ticket purchases, such as a new car. Bonnenfant says consumers are supposed to pay sales tax for the county they reside in and the DMV would enforce this when trying to register a new vehicle. But, he does concede, this is hard to enforce on purchases where no similar registration is required, such as furniture purchases.

Both Tosun and Bonnenfant suggest statewide property tax reform is more necessary and appropriate to addressing both the county’s and the state’s funding issues than a sales tax increase.

Nevada, like many states, imposes a cap on property tax. According to Bonnenfant, property tax can only be increased by 3 percent of its previous rate each year. However, there is no limit on how much property tax can be cut, and, during the great recession, Bonnenfant said property tax was cut by 50 percent compared to its previous rate.

He points to Oregon as a good example of tax structure. Oregon has a high income tax but no sales tax, which, Bonnenfant said, is good for consumers and manufacturers.

Bonnenfant is personally struggling with WC-1. He has a daughter in 7th grade in public school and went to public schools himself.

“I realize funds are needed, but I don’t know if I trust the system enough to properly manage the revenues,” Bonnenfant said. He is concerned as to why the school district said no to having a sunset on the sales tax.

“That being said, for the future of the community, I have to vote yes,” Bonnenfant said.

While Tosun would not offer an official opinion on WC-1, he did offer a quote from Jean-Bapiste Colbert, who was the finance minister under French King Louis XIV.

“The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest amount of feathers with the least possible amount of hissing.”