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Property grab

Huntertown annexation plan short-sighted


Here’s a tip for the Huntertown council: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

The hand, in this case, is Northwest Allen County Schools, one of the highest-performing districts in the state and primary reason real estate in Huntertown and its environs is so popular. The bite is the $60,000 the school district stands to lose if Huntertown annexes 530 acres south of Cedar Canyon Road.

The amount might seem small for a school district with a $65 million annual budget. The $60,000, however, supports property tax-funded operations, including the district’s transportation budget.

Those budgets already are reduced by nearly $2.6 million this year as a result of the state’s property-tax caps.

The proposed Hunter- town annexation would exacerbate the effect of the caps, which limit property tax collections to 1 percent of a home’s assessed value. When property owners reach the cap, the balance on the tax bill goes uncollected. Legislation passed this year allows NACS to spread the tax-cap losses from its transportation, bus replacement and capital funds over those funds plus its debt service fund. It eases the immediate loss on the funds to replace and operate buses, but it’s a temporary fix because it includes no extra dollars.

NACS Superintendent Christopher Himsel said the school district would not intervene in an annexation bid if not for the effect it would have on the school district and its ability to serve students.

“The current annexation law was approved before the tax caps went into effect,” he said. “The property tax caps add an extra layer of complexity.”

The superintendent’s point is what differentiates Huntertown’s proposal from the controversial annexation measures approved by the city of Fort Wayne. School districts did not immediately see losses from tax caps.

Between 2000 and 2010, Huntertown’s population grew by an astonishing 172 percent. It was growth fueled by young families attracted by the quality of the school district, not by residents hoping to locate near a new sanitary sewer plant. To accommodate the growth in Huntertown and other booming portions of its district, including the area near the new Parkview Regional Medical Center, NACS expanded Carroll High School and built new middle and elementary schools.

Elsewhere in Indiana, municipalities understand the connection between their local schools and their own fortunes. Indianapolis Business Journal reported this month on innovative efforts some communities in central Indiana have made to ease the strain on their growing school districts. The town of Zionsville, for example, will share property tax revenue generated by a new corporate park with Zionsville Community Schools.

“A lot more of these discussions are happening now,” Denny Costerison, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Business Officials, told IBJ. “We should be working together. If something helps the schools out, it helps the municipalities and other units of government.”

Huntertown officials, by contrast, are considering a measure that will inflict more financial pain on the school district. When Himsel and NACS Business Manager Bill Mallers made that point at a hearing last week, they were too polite to point out that Huntertown has the school district to thank for its rapid growth and strong property values.

We’ll do it for them. Huntertown officials should be looking for ways to help NACS maintain its first-rate schools, not inhibiting the district’s capacity to serve the students and families who live in northwest Allen County because of its schools.