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It’s Time For A New Gymnastics Facility

By Reed Anfinson
Swift County Monitor-News
It’s long past time when the District 777 Board of Education make a decision on a future home for the Benson-Kerkhoven-Murdock-Sunburg (BKMS) gymnastics program. The decision that makes the most sense is going to the voters to approve a levy in the neighborhood of $1.2 to $1.5 million.

Before addressing the issue of financing, there are two questions to answer. The first is, does the gymnastics program need a new home? There is no doubt to the answer – definitely. Once that question is answered the next is, how quickly should the school board act? Again, the answer to that question can be answered without hesitation – immediately.

For more than two decades the school’s gymnastics program has operated out of a substandard, unsafe building.

Because of its cramped space, the armory has been labeled unsafe by the school district and the gymnastics program. If there were to be a serious injury to gymnasts or fans, the liability to the school district, and possibly the city, for knowingly allowing it to continue to be used would be substantial. By showing it is moving forward with immediate intention to get the gymnasts out of the armory and into a new building the school could mitigate its potential liability in the coming months.

Benson’s civic center, while an improvement over the armory, still has safety concerns. At the Dec. 3 school board meeting, Chair Brian Samuelson pointed out that the 2018 civic center project proposed by the school district failed when it was found it would have to meet state educational facility wind and snow load standards. It didn’t and it would take a substantial investment to bring it up to code.

The way around that education facility code was to have the school lease the building from the civic center board rather than buy it.

As a community that cares about its children, we should want to see gymnasts practicing in a facility where they are safe and can perform for friends, family and fans who are also in a safe environment.

With the reasoning and purpose set for a new home for gymnastics, the work turns to what should be included in the facility. Is it a bare bones shell set up for gymnastics only, or should it be finished so that it can serve other school activities as well - though still primarily be setup for gymnastics? Those decisions will drive the final cost. At this point, the school board has been looking at a building to primarily serve the gymnastics program. We believe it should have the flexibility to serve other activities.

For its meeting Monday night, the school board has asked for estimates on a basic steel building. While $1.5 million has been used as a base cost for the facility, some school board members say that cost could be closer to $1.2 million, or even lower.
To pay for the new gymnasium, the school board has two options: It can go to the voters for bonding, or it can approve a lease levy purchase without voter approval. Under a lease purchase agreement, the school district borrows the money for construction from a lender, constructs the facility, and then pays off the loan by implementing a levy for 15 years.

In looking at the two funding options, there is no question as to which is the best for the taxpayers. Bonding makes the levy eligible for the Ag2School tax credit. The ag tax credit was passed by the state Legislature to help rural school districts whose tax base is primarily farmland pass building levies without putting an undue burden on farmers. In District 777, ag land taxpayers represent 74.72 percent of the school’s building bond levy tax base.

If Benson Public Schools voters were to approve a $1.5 million building levy, Supt. Dennis Laumeyer estimates that the state would pay $870,000 of the principal and interest costs through its Ag2School tax credit. That number could go higher in the coming years.

For a levy passed this year, the credit would be 55 percent of the tax associated with a building project. The credit is set to go to 60 percent in in 2022 and 70 percent in 2023. A school building bond passed in 2020, would be eligible for all the future decreases in local farmland property taxes.

Consider it this way: If a landowner has 1,000 acres valued at $6,000 an acre the annual tax under a $1.5 million levy would be $320 a year with the 55 percent Ag2School tax credit.That $320 payment would drop to around $228 with the 60 percent break in 2022 and to $171 in 2023 at the 70 percent credit. With a lease purchase loan of $1.5 million, an ag landowner would pay $570 each year of the 15-year levy.

Bonds would also provide a lower interest rate by 1.0 to 1.25 percentage points and mean a savings of $100,000 to $125,000 in interest.

Some may ask why the school doesn’t go with the cheaper $400,000 proposal from the civic center board for a 10-year lease of the north side of its facility. It would also pay $12,000 to $15,000 annually in utilities.  In answer to that question, school board members have expressed reluctance to spending close a half-million dollars over 10 years on what is already a 40-year-old building that was constructed as a grain storage facility. When the lease was over it would have nothing to show for its money and it would now be in a 50-year-old building.

School board members are also nervous about the proposed $400,000 renovation cost. They are concerned that it could go higher. Payments would have to come from the school district’s lease levy authority, which does not require voter approval. There is no state agricultural land tax credit available for lease levy financing.

School board members also see benefits to having the gymnastics facility on its building campus.

This past November, the Lac qui Parle Valley School overwhelmingly passed a $39.9 million bond levy for its buildings. MACCRAY School District passed a $39.5 million bond issue for a central campus. With Benson’s $26.3 million building levy passed in 2018, its $3.07 million levy for heating, air conditioning and ventilation work at the high school, and a $1.5 million levy for a new gym, our total levy would be $30.87 million. However, the school board believes it can spend less than that and return some funds to taxpayers.

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