Some Orange County taxpayers are paying 10 times as much as others for school bonds – a difference that’s difficult to see as officials get ready to adjust how much homeowners pay for the construction debt.
New tax rates go to OC supervisors for approval Tuesday, and the info in public agenda documents only shows the new proposed rates – not how they compare with current rates.
It’s not easy to see how each school district’s tax rates compare with each other – like which charge the most and least to each homeowner – because the documents don’t add up the total that each district charges for its multiple bonds.
Voice of OC set out to make the data easier to understand, by grouping the roughly 200 separate bond taxes by district to show how much a taxpayer in each district is paying, and how it’s changing.
The simplified data reveals a wide range in what districts charge – from over $70 annually per $100,000 in assessed property value in Los Alamitos, Garden Grove and Savanna school districts, to just $7 and $10 in Capistrano Unified and Laguna Beach Unified, respectively.
The biggest increases in the new proposed rates are at the Lowell Joint, Savanna and Buena Park school districts – which are seeing their rates go up by $22, $9 and $8, respectively, per $100,000 in assessed value.
The biggest drops are at the Placentia-Yorba Linda, Santa Ana, and Los Alamitos school districts, which are seeing their rates decline by $14, $13 and $12, respectively.
Carolyn Cavecche, president of the OC Taxpayers Association, said it’s crucial for the public to make sure the bonds are spent on what was promised to the voters.
“The most important issue for taxpayers and the Taxpayer Oversight Committee to watch is that funds are only being spent on projects that were included in the bond language,” said Cavecche, who formerly served as the mayor of Orange.
“Sadly taxpayers sometimes don’t pay attention to that while voting and projects that are not appropriate for bond funds are approved. OCTax has specific rules on what should be and should not be paid for by bond funds.”
Local taxpayers are supposed to have some help figuring out where their taxes go.
“It’s the job of the Taxpayer Oversight Committee to monitor spending,” Cavecche said.
“They are required to release a report to the school board and to the taxpayers every year on where the bond dollars are being spent. OCTax asks local school boards to post that information on their website in an area that is easy to find,” she added.
“Sadly that does not always happen.”
A good approach, she said, is for districts to have a website tab “front and center on the home page that is easily recognized as a place to find bond information.”
Cavecche said Orange Unified is doing a good job, though “some districts make it harder to find, making taxpayers have to hunt for it on the website.”
After calculating the tax rates by district – and how they’re changing – Voice of OC contacted the spokespeople for all 28 school districts in OC to confirm the accuracy of the calculations, why the highest-cost districts are charging the most, and vice versa for the lowest-cost districts.
Irvine Unified’s school bonds – approved in 2016 – are capped at a maximum rate of $29 per $100,000 in value, said John Fogarty, who is IUSD’s Assistant Superintendent/Chief Financial Officer of Business Services, in an emailed response to Voice of OC.
“The rates up for approval appear to be accurate and are decreasing mainly because the Assessed Valuations (AV) within the School Facilities Improvement District (SFID) are significantly outpacing the projected growth at the time of the bond issuance,” he added.
“For example, to be conservative the District projected flat [assessed valuations] growth in 2021-22 and actual [valuation] growth exceeded 6%. Therefore, not as much is needed to satisfy debt service.”
Orange Unified’s bonds also are capped at $29 per $100,000, noted spokeswoman Hana Brake.
“Due to prudent financial planning and changes in local property values, our residents are paying significantly less than that ($16.64 per $100K) on their 2020-2021 property tax bills,” she said.
“As of October 2020, District records indicate that our taxpayers are paying 42% less than the approved rate, which equals $18 million in total taxpayer savings since 2017-18.”
Brake added that it’s difficult to compare tax rates between districts, because there’s differences in bond interest rates, terms and other factors, “depending on things like the credit rating of the district/entity and other factors.”
Spokespeople for the other districts didn’t respond, aside from the Centralia and Laguna Beach school districts confirming the numbers looked accurate.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.