Modesto's Village I school tax questioned

Large crowd expected at Wednesday meeting

August 9, 2010 

BA Enochs High School

(BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com) James Enochs High School, Wednesday afternoon. July 14, 2010

BART AH YOU — Modesto Bee

Concerns about how millions of dollars in extra taxes were spent on school construction in northeast Modesto will be addressed Wednesday at a public meeting for an agency that oversees the money.

The Village I Mello-Roos school taxing district has collected nearly $52 million in extra property taxes, and it plans to continue taxing homeowners for an additional 27 years.

Whether all those taxes were appropriate is being questioned, based on a 1994 agreement that was supposed to limit how much Village I residents were obligated to pay for new schools.

The Building Industry Association of Central California on Monday formally requested a comprehensive review of school financing and construction costs for the four Village I campuses -- Enochs High School, Savage Middle School, and Freedom and Sanders elementary schools.

The demand that more data be made public follows a package of Modesto Bee stories about taxes in Village I. The Bee documented how the school agency -- managed by Modesto City Schools District administrators -- did not comply with taxing limitations agreed to in 1994 when the Mello-Roos district was formed.

The Modesto High School District, the Sylvan Union School District, the city of Modesto and the BIA signed an agreement that capped how much Village I property owners could be taxed.

That 1994 agreement also assured property owners their taxes "shall be reduced" if state funding for school construction was received.

The state kicked in nearly $32 million to build the four schools, but Village I taxes consistently have been raised -- not reduced -- every year since 1994.

The school agency Wednesday will consider raising taxes by an additional 2 percent, which would boost Village I annual school taxes to $398.10 for most homeowners.

That increase may not win support from all members of the Schools Infrastructure Financing Agency -- the group that manages the money -- governing board.

"They better come up with a very good argument mathematically on why that's needed," said George Rawe, a Sylvan Union School District trustee who is on the school financing agency's board.

Rawe, a Village I resident, said he has "a plan laid out in my mind on what should happen," but first he wants more specific information on how much money the agency has available and what construction needs remain.

"Whatever money is left in the account could go to paying off the bonds," Rawe said. "We all know that paying it off early saves you interest."

Rawe said another option could be to stop raising Village I taxes to lessen the burden on taxpayers.

Other members of the agency's board include Sylvan Trustee Cynthia Lindsey, Modesto Trustees Cindy Marks and Nancy Cline, Stanislaus Union School District Trustees John Gunderson and Nate Howard, and at-large representative Mark Buckley.

The agency's meetings typically last less than a half-hour with no one from the public attending.

That's not expected to be the case Wednesday. Besides building industry representatives, several taxpayers and community leaders say they plan to be there.

Modesto City Schools Trustee Ruben Villalobos said he will attend.

"I've been contacted by people concerned with how the school district spends its money," Villalobos said.

He and Trustee Steve Grenbeaux asked that the Village I Mello-Roos issue be discussed at the Aug. 23 Modesto school board meeting.

Sylvan's school board also will discuss Village I schools -- specifically whether another elementary campus should be built -- at its Aug. 17 meeting.

Whether the city of Modesto will get involved in the dispute is not known.

"We're looking on with interest," said Brent Sinclair, director of Modesto's Community and Economic Development Department.

Wednesday's meeting will start at 6 p.m. at the Sylvan district office, 605 Sylvan Ave.

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at jsbranti@modbee.com or 578-2196.

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