Anonymous mailer against GO bond sent out days before vote

February 6, 2017 GMT

Just days before an election in which Santa Fe school district voters will decide whether to approve or reject a $100 million general obligation bond to help upgrade and renovate public school facilities around the city, many residents reported receiving an anonymous campaign mailer urging them to vote no.

The flier, which appeared in mailboxes Saturday, raised concerns among school officials and community members about an unnamed person or organization trying to sway voters so close to Tuesday’s election. The mailer also could violate a campaign law in New Mexico.

“Dear hardworking taxpayers of Santa Fe: Our public schools want more of your money!” the postcard says.

It does not include information on who paid for the last-minute push to oppose the bond issue, other than a U.S. Postal Service permit number that was traced to Albuquerque.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García called the campaign mailer “misguided and misleading.”

“We really don’t know who sent this,” she said in a phone interview Sunday. “We want them to come out of the shadows and talk about it. We want to clarify some misinformation that they have. … The voters of Santa Fe have a right to know who is providing this information.”

For example, she said, the mailer seems to suggest the district is unwisely spending money on water conservation, solar panels and LED lighting, and that no public entity is overseeing such expenditures.

“It’s not like these are frivolous things,” García said. “These are the sorts of items that must be approved by the New Mexico Public Schools Facilities Authority, not ‘pie in the sky’ projects. These are sound investments that save money in the long run, money that we can then put into the classroom.”

García said the school district’s attorney is looking into whether the mailer violates a state statute that says it is “unlawful for any person, organization or political committee to publish or print any campaign advertising or communication which does not specify the name of the sponsor or the name of a responsible officer who authorized the printing or publication of such material, in any election, special election, school district election or an election authorizing a bond issue.”

That prohibition, according to the law, applies “to handbills, petitions, circulars, letters or similar written material.”

A 1997 opinion from the state attorney general said the statute is unconstitutional and unenforceable. According to the attorney general’s ruling, the law would be constitutional if its wording were changed to clarify that it applied to campaign material that was false or fraudulent.

Several Santa Feans called The New Mexican on Saturday and Sunday to complain about the flier, including one woman who said she will vote against the bond but still feels the anonymous mailer is unfair.

Former city councilor Karen Heldmeyer, who also received the mailer, said by phone Sunday, “There should be information on this flier so you know who are you are getting it from. … It’s certainly the right thing to do.”

Lynda Kashiwa said by email that while she hasn’t decided whether to support the bond question, she finds the anonymous postcard “annoying” because “one cannot tell whether the ‘facts and figures’ quoted are complete or even accurate.”

García sent out an email Sunday that said, “Dark money was spent on an anti-SFPS General Obligation (GO) Bond flier mailed from Albuquerque. The flier contains false information that could possibly mislead the residents of Santa Fe. The anonymous source behind the flier is attempting to influence our upcoming GO Bond election using incomplete or inaccurate information.”

The school district has just one source of funding for school construction, García said, and that is voter-approved bonds. “GO Bond funds can’t be used for paying teachers, supplies or materials, etc.,” she said.

She also stressed the energy-savings moves the district has made in the past few years that have reduced water, gas and electricity use, saving the district about $500,000 per year.

The mailer accurately says $29 million of the bond would be used to build the new Milagro Middle School campus on Llano Street — a project the Santa Fe school board approved to address shrinking enrollment at two existing middle schools. The mailer also lists other planned projects, including upgrades to district kitchens, athletic fields and solar panels.

“So where’s this money coming from?” the flier says. “From your check book via property taxes you pay.”

If voters approve the general obligation bond on Tuesday, this would be the third year in a row they have backed a property tax measure for the school district.

In 2015, voters approved a 1.5 mill property tax levy, raising $9 million a year for six years to maintain district facilities. And in 2016, voters approved the renewal of an $11 million-per-year property tax to upgrade technology in the district’s schools.

The district can put a general obligation bond for construction and renovations on voters’ ballots every four years. This year’s bond, if approved, would increase property taxes by an estimated $80 per year for a home with a $300,000 market value.

Since the district still has outstanding bonds, spokesman Jeff Gephart said in an email, if the bond does not pass, property owners’ taxes would slowly decline until all of the debt obligations are expired.

The average tax for general obligation bonds for a $300,000 home now totals about $350, he said. If the bond question on Tuesday’s ballot does not pass, “the tax would fall to $334 in year 1, $251 by year 5 and $4 by year 10,” Gephart said. If it does pass, “the tax would go to $430 for the next 4 years until the next GO Bond election.”

Not everyone is happy about the bond.

Santa Fe businessman John Onstad said in an email to The New Mexican, “It’s always ‘the increase will only amount to a couple cups of coffee a week’. … They’re claiming this bond will ‘only’ increase property taxes for a $300,000 home by $80/year. Problem is, if you look at a loan amortization table, homeowners will pay this $80/month for 25-35 years. Add up all the bond issues and NMGRT increases and this is some pretty serious money over a decade or more.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

On the web

• Visit www.sfps.info and click on the “GO Bond” link for more information about the election, including a list of polling locations.