One of the things you often always hear about Bossier Parish is that there is great cooperation and unity on important issues. It’s something that the parish leadership takes pride in and has led to several great developments, from the CenturyLink Center to the National Cyber Research Park.
But for the past month, an issue has created not only division, but an ardent fervor of partisanship among lines in the Bossier community.
The Bossier Parish School Board announced early this year that it would seek two property tax millages on the May 4 ballot — 22.94 mills for funding pay raises for teachers and classified employees and 3.22 mills for a dedicated fund source for technology improvements.
This news, which was reported on by our sister publication the Bossier Press-Tribune, arrived with little fanfare and simmered for quite a while. The notion behind the votes was generally not argued — if you want the best teachers, you have to give them a reason to not only come to Bossier but to stay in Bossier; if you want the best students, they need the best technology available.
Looking at the schools’ point of view, it’s hard to not be moved.
Bossier Schools officials say teacher turnover rate in Bossier Parish has increased, rising to 10 percent in the 2015-16 school year and 12 percent in 2017-18. They also say the average starting pay for teachers with a bachelor’s degree is $42,827 in Bossier while neighboring parishes are higher — Caddo is $44,565, Webster is $45,614, Red River is $46,310, and Desoto Parish is $48,000.
On the technology side, Bossier Schools Superintendent Mitch Downey told the Press-Tribune last week that the schools tech infrastructure dates back to 1997, which is we know is ancient by most standards. He says there are currently more than 23,000 Chrome books on that infrastructure, which teachers and schools paid for through fundraising and grants because the district could not afford to buy them. He added that Bossier is the only district in Louisiana that does not currently meet FCC standards for bandwidth.
Meanwhile, as enrollment in Bossier Schools has increased, the State Minimum Foundation Program (MFP) base amount per student has remained flat since the 2014-15 school year.
But looking at what businesses are saying, they have a strong argument against these taxes.
For Bossier business owners, the teacher and professional personnel pay raise would affect their commercial property valued at $100,000 to a tune of $28.68 per month, $57.35 per month on a $200,000 business property, and $86.03 per month on a $300,000 business property. The technology proposition millage would cost businesses $4.03 per month on commercial property valued at $100,000, $8.05 on $200,000 value, and $12.08 on $300,000 value.
Bossier Parish Tax Assessor, Bobby W. Edmiston, provided examples to the Press-Tribune of how much the tax increase could impact some larger businesses in the area, noting that a chain store like Home Depot would pay $38,378.69, while Horseshoe Casino would pay $494,031.24.
For 2019 estimates, a Bossier Chamber of Commerce fact sheet approved by Edmiston notes that millages would see a nearly 40 percent increase in property taxes worth $25 million in revenue. A staggering 70 percent, $17.5 million, of that would be paid by local businesses.
Moreover, the vote would make the millages retroactive to 2019, meaning a double whammy come the start of the new year.
The Bossier Chamber of Commerce took a stand in mid-April, encouraging the school board to pull the proposed taxes from the ballot.
“Because this tax is retroactive to 2019 and would impact business and economic growth, the Board echoes the sentiments of the poll conducted of the Bossier Chamber membership that this referendum is too much of a tax burden at one time,” an emailed statement from the chamber said.
They also pointed out Gov. John Bel Edwards’ proposed statewide teacher pay raise and 2020 being a reassessment year for property taxes in Bossier Parish.
“The Bossier Chamber Board seeks a solution that does not destroy the budgets of the small businesses that make this economy run, gives teachers incentives to build a great school district and gives the administration the tools it needs to recruit,” the release added.
What that solution is…is out of my pay grade. I can say that a property tax is being viewed as the only acceptable measure because Benton, Haughton, and Plain Dealing are already at the state-imposed 5-percent limit on sales tax.
Budget cuts are also out of the question. Downey told the Press-Tribune recently, “The Board has been diligent in trying to trim where it can and use those savings to give employees one-time pay supplements when possible. But it is not sustainable and our teachers need something they can count on. The same with technology.”
To say this is a tough situation is perhaps the local understatement of 2019. All you have to do is look at social media to see the vitriol being parried back and forth by supporters of each side. Or drive down Benton Road and see digital and physical billboards encouraging “No” votes, with students holding support rallies in the shadow of the billboards.
I, like many business leaders who oppose this vote, understand that we need an educated workforce. But a tax that increases the cost on businesses, especially in our fragile climate still recovering from an oil bust, will mean that there may not be work for them to find. Remember, just because the cost of business goes up, doesn’t mean revenue will follow.
Worst case is that businesses close their doors due to the increase. Best case is that the costs are passed on to consumers. Another likely outcome is that developments looking to move into the area will change their mind due to the higher cost of doing business.
I’ve had several small business owners express their concerns to me. One reached out to me last Friday to say, “Everyone I have spoken with is all for teacher pay raises, so voting ‘No,’ doesn’t mean they are opposed to the raise. It means they are opposed to having a small portion of the population ‘foot the bill,’ so to speak. One small business I spoke with has done the math and their property taxes will go up $40,000 per year based on their property value and moveable inventory, and $40,000 per year is the difference between them being able to employee the people they currently have and not (employing them).”
As for us, while it’s true that we don’t own property in Bossier, our stake is that part of revenue is based on advertising dollars. I can tell you that when times get tough and costs go up, the first budget to be cut is marketing. So some people who support BIZ. currently won’t be able to, while others will have to drastically scale back. It means hard times are passed down.
Therefore, I hear what my audience, my readers, those that I talk to and try to help, are saying. We at BIZ. are opposing the schools property tax millages.
This is not about being against teachers receiving a raise that I wholly admit they deserve. It’s about the amount and how they are proposing to leverage the tax. It’s about the possibility of a “pay arms race” with neighboring parishes. It’s about me, and others, being unable to do business.
From the interaction I have seen and heard about, I am sure that my opposition will be vilified (as so many differing opinions on social media are these days) as teacher-hating and greedy. But I’ll echo what the business owner I spoke to last week had to say, “We love Bossier! We want Bossier to be successful. But this is not the way to encourage entrepreneurship and business growth.”
I’ll also say that I and many business owners are open to finding an alternative solution to this issue of providing teachers and support personnel the pay raise. As the Bossier Chamber said in their release, “We cannot let a solvable issue divide a Bossier community that has historically been so unified.”
I hope you’ll keep this in mind before, during, and after you leave the polls this weekend.
Sean Green is publisher and editor of BIZ. Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org