Special election could be huge savings or extra costs

 RCAS sets polling places for school bond vote
RCAS sets polling places for school bond vote (KOTA)
Published: Jan. 8, 2020 at 7:59 PM CST
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The debate concerning the Rapid City School District's request for a nearly $200 million bond continues.

The proposal would increase property taxes by 85 cents for every $1,000 valuation.That money would then be used to address infrastructure needs associated with aging buildings and over-population.

In a controversial, and potentially costly, decision the school board opted to hold a special election on February 25 to decide the fate of the bond, instead of placing it on the ballot for the June primary or the November general election.

According to the school board president, Mike Roesler, the decisions to call a special election was primarily made for financial reasons.

"Bond rates are going go up," Roesler said. "They're at historically low rates right now. They only have one direction to go and that's back up."

He says they want to lock down a low rate now so they can be ready to move on their plans as soon as possible. However, calling for a special election comes at a cost.

The Pennington County Auditor's Office, which runs all of the elections in the area, says each election costs about $60,000 - a cost generally shared by the all of the entities participating in the election.

"A bond issue of this size," Roesler said,". . .it's a bold ask."

Which is another reason why the board chose a special election.

"What that does is it allows the voter to focus on the issue at hand and not have to try and learn about several issues at once which typically happens on a November election," Roesler said.

The problem is voter fatigue. Voters go to vote for the president and then get to the ballot questions and simply pick yes or no without reading or understanding the actual question. Roesler hopes that with only one issue on the ballot, voters will be able to get informed and not feel overwhelmed by everything else on the ballot.

"I mean they're trying to decided whether they want to invest in buildings for the school system or not," Roesler said. "What we really want is an informed voter."

However, it's those same overwhelming ballot measures and candidates that drive voter turnout in a massive way. In 2018, the city called for a special election in February drawing less than 8 percent of voters. Whereas, in the last presidential election in 2016, turnout was nearly 70 percent.

Still, there is some hope for a middling turnout. The special election to decide the fate of the civic center in March of 2015 brought out 31 percent of voters. However, that turnout number is something of an outlier in an area that routinely barely scratches 30 percent in primary elections.

Additionally, putting a ballot measure on a November election can be it's death knell. In 2016, seven of the 10 questions were defeated. Some political scientists point simply to voter fatigue.

"November elections are tough," Roesler said. "It's hard for me just to get up to speed on all the referendums and initiatives so I can't image any of the other voters are having and easier time than I do."

As far as that $65,000 cost for the special election goes, Roesler said, if they wait and bond rates go up even a fourth of a percent the additional cost on the bond could mean more than $300,000 a year in additional bond service. In essence, paying more now will save the tax payers money in the future.

However, if the bond is not approved, there will be no savings and the school board will simply have to absorb the cost of the special election.

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