By VICTOR E. SASSON
HACKENSACK, N.J. -- School officials are counting on a misleading ballot proposal and other inaccurate messages to hoodwink voters into approving $170 million in borrowing and a burdensome 30-year property tax hike to pay it off.
But Mayor John Labrosse and other members of the City Council have joined a large number of homeowners in urging a "no" vote on the plan at a special election on Tuesday.
Polls will be open from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.
The school construction and renovation proposal grew from $165.1 million when first reported by NorthJersey.com on June 30 to the $169.9 million that appears on the ballot.
Most of that -- $101.5 million -- would be used to build a junior high school and parking garage on the high school campus, with the balance devoted to renovating school buildings that average 100 years old, school officials say.
All the work would be completed to allow the schools to reopen in September 2021, Board of Education President Lara L. Rodriguez told NorthJersey.com.
But the property tax hikes needed to pay off the borrowing assume school officials will receive more than $41.3 million in state aid, which isn't guaranteed.
The original ballot proposal submitted by school officials tried to fool residents by claiming the average property tax impact would be "$308.66 over 30 years, based on the average assessed home" -- or only about $10 a year.
But last week, after a homeowners group sued school officials, a state Superior Court judge in Hackensack ordered county election officials to print new ballots that state approval "would cost the average homeowner '$308.66 per year, for 30 years.'"
"It is an extraordinarily expensive commitment that the citizens of Hackensack would be approving," said Judge Estela M. De La Cruz, explaining why she ordered a change in the language to reflect the potential true cost.
Many homeowners would pay far more. My exposure would be about $650 a year for 30 years or a total of $19,500, but others would pay even more every year.
And everyone's annual payment would increase, if their assessment or the city tax rate, or both, go up in the three decades after schools reopen.
And messages from school officials continue to mislead voters by dramatically downplaying the potential property tax hikes.
A postcard about the bond referendum in both English and Spanish -- sent to homes by Hackensack Public Schools -- claims the cost would be "less than $1 a day [menos de $1 por dia] for homes assessed at the city average."
An open letter from Rosemary Marks, acting superintendent of schools, also falsely claims "the tax impact...would be an average of $308.66 per year or less than $1.00 per day."
The letter, which makes no mention of a potential 30-year tax hike, was dated Dec. 31, 2018, and written in response to one from Mayor Labrosse, who opposes the plan.
'Higher rents,' too
A condo owners group calling themselves Hackensack Smart Schools Inc. also sent postcards to every city resident, warning:
"Tenants can also expect to pay higher rents if it [the bond proposal] passes."
"Join Mayor Labrosse and vote no on the $170 million school bond and big tax increase this Tuesday!"
The $169.9 million proposal has been put together in the past 5 years, Deputy Mayor Kathleen Canestrino said at a City Council work session on Jan. 8, but school officials refused to divulge any details until recently.
"What's the rush?" Canestrino said in a phone interview today, noting school officials haven't completed a re-registration to make sure only students from Hackensack and sending districts reap the benefits of taxpayer-supported schools.
City officials support a plan to alter and renovate existing schools, and upgrade heating and air conditioning at a total cost of $68.3 million, with a potential average property tax hike of $108 a year for 30 years.
But school officials have refused to split that part of the proposal from the $101.5 million in new construction, leaving voters no choice but to reject the entire plan.
As of last April, Hackensack had 23,401 registered voters, according to the Bergen County Board of Elections (the county clerk put the number of voters at 21,303).
In the April 2018 school election, three challengers backed by the City Council defeated school board President Jason Nunnermacker, a lawyer, and two other incumbents.
But the nine-member Board of Education remains in control of the Zisa family political dynasty. And Anthony C. Zisa is an English teacher at Hackensack High School.
In recent years, Zisa loyalists on the board have driven the annual school budget over $100 million -- exceeding the municipal budget -- boosted fees to the board's lawyer, raised administrative salaries and postponed renovation of old schools.
695 OK'd budget
In unofficial results last April, only 1,629 voters or 7.65% of those registered cast ballots -- more than twice as many as in previous school board elections.
Only 1,142 of those voters voted "yes" or "no" on the tax-levy proposition, which was approved 695-447.
That means only 695 out of 44,000 residents approved the use of $82.8 million in property taxes to support the $117 million school budget.
About 45% of your property tax bill goes to support the city's schools, and that percentage would go higher with approval of the irresponsible $170 million school construction and renovation plan.
A Superior Court judge's ruling last Wednesday left uncorrected the tax impact as stated on mail-in and sample ballots for the special school election on Tuesday.