The Vigo County School Corp. facility referendum took another step forward Friday. But, now, district officials are concerned the state-prescribed wording of the question could be misleading to the public.

The ballot question reads in part: “If this public question is approved by voters, the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence would increase by 55.55% and the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a business property would increase by 50.64%.”

The county auditor’s office calculated the percentages to be included on the ballot.

On Friday, the Vigo County Election Board gave preliminary approval to the referendum question that would appear on the May 3 ballot. The approval is procedural, prescribed by law, and next goes to the Department of Local Government Finance for review.

“It’s a state-prescribed question we wish could speak more to what this action means to our voters,” Superintendent Rob Haworth told the election board.

Once the DLGF completes its review, it sends its recommendation back to the county election board, which must rule on the ballot language by Feb. 18.

The $260 million referendum would be used to build new academic facilities and renovate non-academic facilities at North, South and West Vigo high schools; it would include West Vigo Middle School, which is adjacent to the high school.

The referendum question as it now stands is: “Shall Vigo County School Corp. increase property taxes paid to the school corporation by homeowners and businesses? If this public question is approved by voters, the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a residence would increase by 55.55% and the average property tax paid to the school corporation per year on a business property would increase by 50.64%.

“The political subdivision may issue bonds or enter into a lease to 2022 High School Safety, Security, Infrastructure, Replacement and Restoration Project, which includes the construction of academic spaces and renovation of and improvements to North Vigo High School, South Vigo High School and West Vigo Middle/High School, site improvements and the purchase of equipment and technology, which is estimated to cost $261,790,000 over 22 years.

“The most recent property tax referendum within the boundaries of the political subdivision for which this public question is being considered was proposed by the Vigo County School Corporation in 2019 and passed.”

In an interview, Haworth raised concerns that the wording of the question could be misleading to taxpayers as far as the actual tax impact.

“We have no local control over the question,” he said prior to the meeting. “This is a state-driven formula. … As a result, I don’t believe it accurately depicts our local situation.”

A change in law during the last session of the Indiana General Assembly revises the local public question to include the “estimated average percentage of property tax increase” on residential and business property.

The new language replaced the prior long-standing language that provided the proposed property tax rate increase per $100 assessed valuation to the property taxpayer.

The Indiana School Boards Association supports reverting back to the prior language. It states the new language “is considered ambiguous and could misinform a taxpayer that would pay significantly less, or more, than the average percentage of property tax increase,” according to its legislative priorities.

The auditor’s office calculated the percentages to be included on the ballot, and they are factually accurate, Haworth said. But the overall lengthy question “does not do the financial impact justice,” he said.

He said the referendum question does not reflect the end of the operational referendum in 2024. It does not inform voters how the referendum is important for the district to have a comprehensive plan for all facilities, not just high schools. It also does not speak

to the impact of tax caps, which limits the district as far as its capital projects plan.

Voters might be confused and think the 55.55% or 50.64% average property tax increases apply to total tax rate. In fact, it only applies to the school corporation tax rate, which for 2022 is 98 cents per $100 assessed value.

Haworth encourages people to go to the Vigo County School Corp. website, which includes referendum information as well as a tax impact calculator. Using the tax impact net calculator, people can determine how much more they will pay in school property taxes as a result of the facility referendum.

He pointed out there are 26 taxing districts in Vigo County. He gave the example of Nevins Township, which has a 2022 tax rate of $2.11 per $100 assessed value; in comparison, Terre Haute Harrison Township has a tax rate of $4.50 per $100 assessed value.

The school district portion is 46% of the Nevins tax rate, but 22% of the Terre Haute Harrison tax rate.

The ballot question takes all 26 of those taxing districts and creates an average. “I believe that average doesn’t speak to the people in Nevins Township, nor does it speak to the people in (Terre Haute) Harrison — and probably everybody in between,” Haworth said.

The question also doesn’t factor in that the operational referendum would end in 2024. The 55.55% “is based on the operational referendum still being in the tax calculation, so, rather than a net increase of 25 cents, they are making it 41 cents,” Haworth said.

(The current operating referendum is 16.2 cents per $100 assessed value. The district proposes ending it in 2024, and that rate would then be applied toward the facility referendum.)

Also, people who go into the voting booth and see the 55.55% increase might also think it applies to the entire property tax bill, and not just to the school portion, Haworth said.

Nor does it explain that while the referendum addresses high school facilities, it also means existing debt service dollars can be used for middle and elementary schools, creating a comprehensive district facility plan that includes maintenance.

The question also doesn’t address how property tax caps have adversely affected funding for the district’s capital projects fund plan.

“My fear is people take the Indianapolis question and don’t come back and apply it to their local pocketbooks,” Haworth said.

District officials, a political action committee and community members will be working from now until the primary election May 3 to try and educate voters on the referendum and its importance for not only the district and its high schools, but the community as a whole, Haworth said.

“We’re ready to take the challenge on,” he said.
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