As the ballot submission date has now closed, commissioners’ courts and school board trustees have brazenly put forth their bond referendums for voter approval this fall. Many of these projects are a prime example of the need for increased ballot transparency. While some governing bodies identify what projects are being considered, unknown to taxpayers is cost per square footage, or interest on the bond’s principal. Here, we highlight some of the debt proposals in the Houston area that voters will be seeing this November.
Cleveland ISD’s Board of Trustees is seeking a $35 million bond to address its growing student population. The package is calling for additional, “classrooms and core facilities.” If approved, the bond would mean an additional $.094 per $100 valuation on the interest and tax rate. That equates to an additional $94 a year for a home valued at $100,000. Cleveland ISD’s current debt is $36 million, or roughly $9,800 per student.
Next is Magnolia ISD, which is asking voters to approve $92 million in new debt. Magnolia voters will be given two propositions on their ballot. While this a commendable approach because it allows voters to select certain debt projects while rejecting others, complete line-item voting would be a better approach. Proposition 1 is requesting $84 million for construction, renovation, acquisition, and improvement of district schools as well as the purchase of new technology, future school sites, and ten new buses. Proposition 2 calls for $8 million for a multipurpose conference center and new turf fields for Magnolia’s two high schools. Magnolia ISD’s current tax-supported debt is about $146 million or about $12,200 per student.
Fort Bend County Commissioners are asking taxpayers to approve a $98.6 million facilities bond. As the county’s population grows and valuations increase, commissioners are saying they need to renovate and expand buildings and facilities. According to County Judge Bob Hebert, “If we don’t have a bond election in November we are going to have to wait at least a year to get anything done.” Their current debt is $460 million, which is about $705 per resident.
North of the Houston area, Willis ISD is requesting that taxpayers take on new debt as well. Their proposal of $109.5 million will include a new elementary school and a Career and Technology Center to teach trades such as cosmetology, nursing, and automotive repair. The bond referendum also includes a new auditorium, an agricultural center to enhance the Future Farmers of America program, and a possible dance studio. Willis ISD’s debt is currently $66.5 million.
Montgomery County, who currently holds $446 million in outstanding tax-supported debt, is asking for voter approval on a $280 million road bond. Unlike the other bonds noted above, this one is at the behest of county residents and was created with the help of the Texas Patriots PAC based in The Woodlands. Just three months ago residents rejected the discordant $350 million road bond being pushed by county commissioners and their proxy group Keep Montgomery County Moving PAC.
Alvin ISD is requesting voters approve a $245 million bond. The proposal is a combination of 13 projects, focused primarily on school improvements. It is predicted that the bond would result in a maximum tax increase of 8.3 cents per $100 of valuation. Alvin ISD currently has $304 million in debt, which, per student, is $16,200.
Conroe ISD is hoping to get $487 million approved to keep up with Montgomery County’s fast growing population. The district doesn’t anticipate having to raise taxes more than 1-cent to fund the repayment of this new debt if approved. The district’s current debt sits at $972 million or $18,100 per student. As the counties largest school district, it is expecting to receive roughly 1,400 students per year for the foreseeable future. If voters approve, Conroe ISD will be making some major technological advances with districtwide Wi-Fi, think tank and collaboration spaces for students, a robotics workspace, and audio, visual, and graphics labs. Board President John Husbands said, “It’s all about needs.”
Lastly, but certainly not least, Harris County is asking its taxpayers to approve $848 million in new debt. Of this nearly billion-dollar bond, $700 million will go to road improvements. County Judge Ed Emmet said, “When you consider Harris County has more people than 24 states, a bond of this magnitude really isn’t that big.” While this may be true, the problem is that taxpayers deserve a bond of this size to be transparent and identify what county projects are contingent upon the bond’s passage. Harris County’s tax-supported debt is currently $2.5 billion.
On November 3rd, Houston area voters will be asked to take on a large amount of new debt. It is up to taxpayers of those respective districts and counties to look at the proposed projects, current debt levels, and current tax levels to determine if adding millions in debt is in their best interest. But it is also up to taxpayers to demand more transparency in their bond process.
*All current debt levels are outstanding tax-supported debt as reported by the Texas Comptrollers DEBT at a Glance tool.