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Adding ‘but . . .’
to ‘yes’ or ‘no’

For as long as most of us can remember, Marion-Florence taxpayers proudly have supported bond issues.

They paid first for school buildings — in recent years, a middle school, an expanded elementary school, the elementary school itself. Next they paid for facilities designed for school and community use — an indoor pool, a performing arts center, a gym.

Dual-use facilities haven’t been as available as expected for activities outside of school — a failing that can be corrected. Voters nonetheless have been proud of these outward-facing elements of our community’s infrastructure.

Now comes the latest plan, creating new football locker rooms, a new concession stand, a summer weight room, and better lights at neighboring ballparks.

The facilities would be first-rate. The schools have done a good job ensuring that. And blossoming yard signs favoring the proposal make a “yes” vote look attractive.

But would this project be the best use of the money involved?

The plans seem less outward-facing — despite a good but token promise of winter pickleball courts.

The $3.26 million price — a total of $730.51 in taxes over 11 years for a typical taxpayer — seems to provide a lot less bang for our buck, even in inflationary times, than we are accustomed to.

The average cost to building a home this year is around $300,000. A $3.26 million project could build nearly 11 top-of-the-line homes.

Despite being on a building spree, Marion County hasn’t spent anywhere near that on its new or remodeled facilities.

It rejected repairing the historic Bowron Building and never seriously considered remodeling the future home of Bill and Essie’s Barbecue despite a combined price for those two projects that would have been considerably less than what the locker rooms and concession stand would cost.

It’s doubtful commissioners will approve anything nearly as costly for a new health building. Their waste transfer station might have cost somewhere in that ballpark, but the ultimate price after multiple change orders was considered a cruel joke by most taxpayers.

Obviously, schools can’t pay for needs or desires of other units of government. But would locker rooms and a concession stand be the best educational use of so much money?

Marion’s strategic plan makes repeated references to involvement of schools in helping the broader community achieve the economic future it deserves. Yet none of the proposed projects seems to address any of those needs.

It’s almost as if the schools found themselves with a potential windfall they could spend without increasing taxes and rushed to find something on which they could spend the money.

It’s as if you pay off your car loan and suddenly buy a boat, even though you never really wanted one and actually needed a new roof instead.

In the Durham-Hillsboro-Lehigh district, citizens are being asked which of several projects might be the most urgent and generate the greatest bang for the buck. We recall no such community involvement in deciding which projects the Marion-Florence schools wanted to put forward.

None of us want to be viewed as anti-education — especially someone like this writer, who spent 26 years working in that field. We’re uncomfortable that, come Tuesday, we will have to vote “yes” or “no” to just one vision of what could be done.

We urge community members who share our concerns to vote “no,” but make it (without writing such on our ballot) a “no, but . . . ” vote.

The “but” would be a promise. We’ll happily support a project next time around that’s more focused on education and that seems to get more bang for the buck. Ask us for our opinions, put such a project together, and we’ll eagerly vote “yes.” Meanwhile, we’ll watch like hawks to make sure other governmental units don’t try to raise their taxes because school taxes temporarily will drop — which, in itself, would be a welcome stimulus in difficult times.

Next year, when a stronger plan has been put together with greater citizen involvement and more bang for the buck, we’ll vote “yes” to demonstrate our unflagging support for both education and infrastructure. We just aren’t going to be sheep and vote “yes” now solely because the plan says it won’t increase taxes.

Meanwhile, the schools can be a bit more imaginative with solutions to leaks from seams in stadium seats and might reconsider the cost, benefits, and logistics of relocating weightlifting programs for the summer.

In the 13 years in which this writer was a student in the schools here, there was no weightlifting program, not even shower facilities at the stadium. Yet the schools produced three athletes who went on the stardom at the top levels of college football — Ron Oeschlager, playing alongside Gale Sayers at Kansas, and Gary Melcher and Lou Wegerer, starring for Kansas State.

With all the improvement we’ve made since their day, we haven’t recaptured their level of success. After 50 years, perhaps it’s time to consider whether shoveling money into sports programs actually pays off.

Last December gave taxpayers a chance to start taking back their government by rejecting Charter Ordinance 22. Tuesday will provide us another opportunity to insist that people who pay for projects have a greater voice in shaping what they’re being asked to pay for.

A “no, but . . .” vote Tuesday would go a long way toward reasserting the common-sense voice of the public in our democracy. We did it before with a high-dollar jail. We can do it again with a high-dollar sports annex.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified May 4, 2023

 

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