Mt. Diablo school trustees have trapped themselves in a corner and now want to illegally -- or, at least, unethically -- bypass voters in an attempt to fix the dilemma.
At issue is the district's voter-approved 2010 bond measure to raise $348 million for school construction and solar panel installation. The political problem at the time was that district residents were already paying property taxes to retire a $250 million bond program approved in 2002.
So the district proposed to voters delaying repayment of most of the new bonds until the old ones were retired. That meant stretching out the new debt until 2052 and radically increasing interest costs.
It was a fiscally irresponsible plan to push costs onto our grandchildren. We said so at the time. But district officials feared voters would reject a plan that would increase their annual tax rates.
So they made an explicit promise:
They would not issue bonds if the combined tax rate for the 2002 and 2010 measures was expected to exceed $60 per $100,000 of assessed property value.
That promise can be found in two places in the ballot materials -- in the county counsel's impartial analysis and in the official tax rate statement signed by the then-school board president, Paul Strange.
The school board now apparently recognizes the stupidity of that constraint. It will slow the district's ability to issue most of the bonds approved in 2010. So, by fiat this week, the school board determined it wasn't bound by the promise and passed plans to speed up issuance and repayment of the bonds.
As a result, the district projects tax rates will increase to $89 per $100,000 of assessed value. That's 48 percent more than voters were promised. And in 2015, the rate will increase to $95 per $100,000 of assessed value, which is 58 percent more than promised.
The good news is higher tax rates will enable the district to pay off the bonds by 2040 with significantly less interest cost. Frankly, it's a more responsible plan, one we probably would have supported in 2010 if other problems with the ballot measure had also been fixed.
But, no matter what legal justification district officials conjure up, this is not the promise they made to voters.
They are not talking about a permissible variance in tax rates due to unforeseeable market conditions; they're completely restructuring the 2010 bond program.
If this is what they want to do, they need voter permission -- and, right now, they don't have it.
Bond buyers, beware. Someone might sue.