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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Tara McNamara, systems operator at the Allen County Voter Registration office, flips through petitions for a referendum on the May primary ballot for the proposed $119 million Fort Wayne Community Schools facilities plan.

FWCS petitions submitted

252 people favor placing $119 million building project on May ballot

– Supporters of Fort Wayne Community Schools’ proposed $119 million building project have taken the first step to put the initiative on the May ballot.

FWCS Board member John Peirce dropped off petitions Wednesday at Allen County Voter Registration with 252 signatures calling for the building plan to go to a vote.

“We’re excited,” he said. “We’re checking off the next box in the process.”

Peirce and other supporters of the building project want a referendum on the project because without voter approval, the district cannot afford the plan. If approved, the plan would fall outside the property tax caps, meaning the cost would be shared by all taxpayers in the district and wouldn’t increase the tax-cap loss for other units of government.

After a series of public meetings this fall, the board agreed to pursue $119 million worth of renovations at the district’s 36 buildings most in need of repair.

If approved by voters, the building project would last from 2013 through 2016 and could cost the average homeowner a property tax increase of $27 a year, according to district officials.

Peirce, who lead the failed push for a $500 million building project in 2007, said he spent part of his holiday walking door to door to collect signatures.

He said other board members, district employees and community supporters also collected signatures.

In general, he said, the response was positive.

“People said it was a much smaller project and more appropriate,” he said. “And people understand that it’s needed.”

By dropping off petitions Wednesday, Peirce launched a several-step process.

If voter registration can confirm that at least 125 registered voters signed the petition, then the measure will go before voters, according to Barry Schust, Voter Registration Republican board member.

If not, the auditor will check the petitions too see how many property owners signed the petition, which needs to have at least 100 valid signatures.

Schust said it will take voter registration several days to verify the signatures.

Once the petition is certified, the county Election Board will develop a question to put on the ballot in May, according to Micah Vincent, general counsel for the Department of Local Government Finance.

Ultimately, he said, the Department of Local Government Finance has final say.

For those at FWCS and in local government, the referendum process is relatively new.

For years, Indiana had a petition and remonstrance process governing any projects that required a school board to issue more than $2 million in property tax bonds. That’s the process followed in 2007, when the FWCS board approved a $500 million long-range building plan that was later defeated by remonstrance.

Legislators later established a new referendum process, wherein voters could approve property tax hikes beyond the tax-cap limits to raise additional money for capital projects or general fund expenses.

For construction, any elementary or middle school project totaling less than $10 million or high school project less than $20 million would fall under the dueling petition and remonstrance process; anything more is subject to referendum.