The Edmond Sun

November 18, 2013

OUR VIEW: Consider storm shelter petition carefully

The Edmond Sun

EDMOND — Thousands of Oklahomans are expected to sign a petition seeking a state bond issue to pay for installing storm shelters in every Oklahoma public school. And after seeing the destruction wrought in Moore — again — we certainly support the need for school districts to vigorously pursue adding storm shelters to their buildings.

However, the mechanism that we choose to pay for this endeavor needs to be carefully considered.

First and foremost, we believe this is a local control issue for each individual school district and its patrons. How to distribute funds for storm shelters, how to prioritize which schools receive funding first and how quickly shelters can be added are all issues best determined by local school districts and not someone at a state agency, statewide appointed commission or the Legislature who may not prioritize local needs the way patrons expect.

The petition group, Take Shelter Oklahoma, is seeking to pay for the proposed $500 million bond issue with the state franchise tax, which has not been collected since 2008. Petition organizers say that with the Legislature’s ending of the Business Activity Tax, which arguably took the place of the franchise tax, collection of the former tax should begin again as of July 1. They argue that this is future revenue not currently budgeted for anything, so the beauty of it will be that they are not taking funding from any other program in order to pay the proposed bond.

The one problem with this scenario is that the BAT tax — the placeholder tax for the franchise tax — is revenue that has been going into the general fund at about $40 million to $50 million a year. So if the renewed franchise tax money does not go into the general fund, then yes, there will be state services or programming cut, contrary to what petition organizers are touting.

While cutting funding to some state programming may not necessarily be a bad thing, it’s still an issue to be reconciled before agreeing to spend that revenue on new state bond debt.

Another major concern is that proponents are asking for the $500 million state bond without telling the public how much it will actually cost to install storm shelters in every public school still in need of one. One estimate provided by SAFE Design Group calculates that it could cost between $740 million to $880 million to construct safe rooms for the 1,109 public schools identified as needing one. The petition group has not offered an explanation for how to make up the shortfall, while others estimate the construction costs could be more than $1 billion statewide.

It should be made clear up front how much local match each district is expected to shoulder in order to receive state bond money for shelters. Right now this seems to be the unacknowledged elephant in the room — nothing is ever completely free.

One factor in favor of the petition’s organizers is that a new nonprofit organization, Shelter Oklahoma Schools, has been busy raising private donations and already has put $800,000 toward building storm shelters at four Oklahoma schools. While the private sector’s contributions are generous, there is still a lot more funding needed to accomplish the goal of every school having a shelter.

Another significant revenue partnership opportunity is with FEMA. School districts like Moore, who have suffered terrible losses, are eligible for hundreds of thousands in FEMA funding to build the shelters. The only drawback to this is how long the FEMA funding process can take.

We hope that when it’s time for legislators to write the ballot language that a few key ideas are included.

If the state agrees to use the franchise tax to pay for this bond issue, the ballot language should provide a sunset provision for the tax to end once and for all when the bond issue is paid off for this project. It also should be fixed in law that school districts who receive any bond funding for storm shelters must verify to the state that the shelters they build will be FEMA rated and meet certain code standards to truly ensure student and teacher safety.

Another important item to include is that every school district receiving this funding should put in place a district-wide policy regarding public use of storm shelters and how they will handle the risks and liabilities of opening those shelters to everyone in a community — whether day or night if the schools are open or not. Many schools and municipalities do not offer public shelters due to the myriad of liability issues involved. Edmond schools had a bad experience a couple of years ago when opening its facilities to the public, which included dogs, cats, birds and even a squirrel. School districts will have to wrestle with whether publicly-funded storm shelters should be open to all of the public or reserved strictly for student safety.

And most importantly, the ballot should clearly spell out how oversight of the funding will be achieved. Ensuring high-quality projects that prudently use every dollar is a must if the public is to back this endeavor.