Bonneville homeowners pay a growing price for growth

IDAHO FALLS — Patrons in the Bonneville School District are paying one of the highest levy rates in the state to support local population growth.

Recently added to the local tax bill was an “emergency” levy, granted because fall attendance is up and it doesn’t require voter approval.

This year’s emergency levy will cost property owners $1,674,534. Last year’s emergency levy was $1,548,407.

Administrators say they need the money to pay for about 360 additional students this year alone. But the two levies have added up to an additional $60 a year per $100,000 of taxable property for the last two years.

And these levies pile on top of Bonneville’s existing initiatives:

  • A $63.5 million bond measure for a new high school,
  • A $5.8 million supplemental levy,
  • And a $2.8 million plant-facilities levy.

Together, the measures add up to the highest local levy rate among Idaho’s largest school districts, costing local property owners $580 a year per $100,000 of taxable value.

Ammon’s growth drives the need for more schools and resources

The Bonneville School District encompasses a large swath of mostly rural yet rapidly developing farmland east of Idaho Falls. This area includes Ammon, one of Idaho’s fastest growing cities.

U.S. Census data reveal that Ammon grew at a rate of 123 percent from 2000 to 2010, securing it as Idaho’s 17th largest city.

And the growth hasn’t stopped. Last year, city officials approved 79 home-construction permits. The demographics filling these homes range widely, but many are younger families seeking a combination of small-town life bolstered by the commodities of a larger nearby city, Idaho Falls.

And more young families means more students. Bonneville took in 336 new enrollees from 2015-16 to 2016-17 — a 2.3 percent increase. No other district of its size grew faster in those two years.

All the growth has driven demand for more learning space in Bonneville. The issue reached a boiling point four years ago, when trustees floated a $95 million bond measure to build both a new high school and a new middle school. The proposal failed to receive a majority of votes, let alone the supermajority needed to pass.

After failing a second — and third — time, the district whittled the measure to $63.5 million by ditching an original request for a new middle school. The measure passed in 2015.

The resulting high school, Thunder Ridge, is now nearing completion. It’s equipped to absorb up to 1,500 students next school year, but at an added cost to local taxpayers. The school’s $63.5 million price tag breaks down to about $35 per $100,000 of taxable value.

The school’s construction also spurred residual expenses, including an extra $2.8 million to the district’s supplemental levy — extra money needed to operate and maintain the new high school, district officials say.

These increases, coupled with a maxed-out emergency levy, helped raise Bonneville’s levy rate to an unprecedented level for districts with more than 10,000 kids.

Here’s a comparison of levy rates in Idaho’s seven largest districts (per $100,000 of taxable value):

  • Bonneville: $580
  • Boise: $493
  • Nampa $448
  • Idaho Falls: $424
  • West Ada: $401
  • Pocatello-Chubbuck: $394
  • The state average for all districts: $350
  • Coeur d’Alene: $231

Market values also affect levy rates

It’s not just the cost of growth that contributes to Bonneville’s higher levy rate. Bonneville also has the smallest market value of any of these big districts.

A district’s market value is determined by the assessed value of property within its boundaries. The greater the value, the more capacity a district has to levy local taxes.

Here’s a per-student breakdown of 2017 market values among these same large districts:

  • Coeur d’Alene: $754,410
  • Boise: $697,125
  • West Ada: $441,756
  • Nampa: $295,621
  • Idaho Falls: $295,323
  • Pocatello-Chubbuck: $273,857
  • Bonneville: $209,120

These numbers show Bonneville property owners carry a heavier burden than those in  other communities because the cost to fund added measures is absorbed by a smaller tax base.

Think of it like eating a pie: If carved up for 20 people, each person gets a smaller piece. If carved up for only five, each person has much more to eat.

Bonneville’s smaller tax base stems largely from the type of growth happening within its borders. The district  is made up largely of farmland and a sea of new residential neighborhoods springing up across Ammon. Taxing these properties is less profitable for districts than taxing businesses, because Idaho farmers and homeowners receive annual tax exemptions as high as 50 percent of a property’s assessed value.

Local response

Some Bonneville patrons have embraced the cost of growth.

“No one likes to pay more taxes, but these are our schools, and my kids attend them,” said Justin Herbert. The 34-year-old father of three elementary kids said he noticed an increase of $27 in property taxes this year.

Other local homeowners say the district could be more frugal.

“If you look at the facilities they are building, like that new high school over there, it’s not hard to see that much of that money could be spent better,” said Kirk Lock, a retiree from Oregon who now lives in Ammon. “We’re just trusting the district to spend our money the right way.”

Bonneville superintendent Chuck Shackett said reducing construction costs would rob from instructional quality.

Shackett pointed to the last district he worked in, Shelley, which sits about 10 miles south of Idaho Falls. Over 20 years ago, the rural district built a new high school, and sought the most affordable design it could find in order to save money.

Though the resulting high school resembles a mammoth potato cellar, Shelley officials say it serves students well.

Shackett disagrees: “Because of cutting those costs, Shelley doesn’t have some of the quality of programs available in larger schools.”

Plus, Shackett believes structures should be large and robust enough to absorb future growth.

He referenced the district’s original $95 million bond issue to build both a new middle school and high school four years ago. The nixed middle school tied to the original plan would’ve cost $32 million at the time. Now the district would need to drum up $58 million to build a middle school.

Meanwhile, Bonneville trustees are debating how to handle current overcrowding problems. The latest proposal is a $60-$70 million bond measure to build both a new elementary school and a new middle school.

Shackett is banking on population growth to absorb these costs.

“We won’t take our measure to the county if it means an increase to our levy rate — and you can take that to the bank,” Shackett said in September.

Click here for further reading about concerns over another bond issue in the district. 

Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader provided data and information for this report. 


Devin Bodkin

Devin Bodkin

EdNews assistant editor and reporter Devin Bodkin is a former high school English teacher who specializes in stories about charter schools and educating students who live in poverty. He lives and works in East Idaho. Follow Devin on Twitter @dsbodkin. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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