The Salt Lake Board of Education plans to raise property taxes to pay for earthquake-proofing the city's 35 schools without holding a public vote.
The board has not made a formal decision on the issue, but in a Tuesday morning budget study session members unanimously favored raising taxes on their own without holding a fall referendum election."The idea of a referendum bothers me, at this point, because we've already had the equivalent of a referendum in the poll," said board President Alan Mecham.
Recently, the board paid Dan Jones & Associates $10,000 to poll 910 Salt Lake residents. The preliminary poll results showed that 64 percent favor raising their taxes by a 1 mill levy to fix the schools for earthquake safety. Opponents totaled 27 percent and 8 percent offered no opinion.
The board members said they'd back a tax increase on their own after district business administrator W. Gary Harmer asked for their position. He said he needed the information so he can prepare the 1991-92 budget. Harmer must have the tentative budget ready by May 7, and he needed an informal decision by the board so he could know whether to include Uintah Elementary School in the budget.
Uintah Elementary School, 1227 S. 1500 East, has numerous structural deficiencies, and experts have judged it would be unsound in an earthquake. The majority of Uintah parents, teachers and students have pushed the board to demolish the old school and build a new one.
Engineering studies have shown it will cost about $107 million to fix or replace the city's 35 schools. A 1 mill increase would raise property taxes $45 on a $75,000 home.
However, Harmer said Tuesday that the tax increase may be half that amount because the operation and maintenance tax levy, set by the Legislature, will be lower next year. That means even with a levy for seismic retrofitting the overall tax rate will increase only by .5 mill, he said.
For seismic retrofitting, the board wants to adopt a pay-as-you-go plan, paying for the changes over the next 20 years with taxes rather than issuing bonds. This plan will save the district $75 million in interest payments.
Harmer said it will take several years to build up the fund, so seismic retrofitting won't begin the first year.
The board had discussed holding a fall referendum to see if public agrees, even though the board possesses the legal authority to raise taxes on its own. It will, however, have to hold truth-in-taxation hearings to raise taxes.
Board member Stephen Boyden pointed out that because the board has the legal authority and apparent public support with the Jones poll, "it's now time to move forward."
"If you have to go out and have a referendum every time you do something, to decide the color to paint a building, it takes forever," he said.
Mary Jo Rasmussen, who discussed the poll with school community councils and PTAs, said she's received only positive responses. "I feel comfortable about doing this by ourselves," she said of the tax increase.