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Here's the thing about polls. Howard Dean was sailing to victory in Iowa, remember? Richard Petty was cruising in his race for Secretary of State. And Rufus Edmisten was so far ahead for governor, Jim Martin should've stayed in his chemistry lab.

Poll Taxes 

You like taxes? Impact fees? Or would you like to pay for new schools some other way?

Here's the thing about polls. Howard Dean was sailing to victory in Iowa, remember? Richard Petty was cruising in his race for Secretary of State. And Rufus Edmisten was so far ahead for governor, Jim Martin should've stayed in his chemistry lab.

So here's a question, from a poll taken for The News & Observer and WRAL-TV by Research 2000 in Rockville, Md. What's the best way to make sure there's enough room for new students in the Wake County public schools? Is it to build lots and lots of schools, and the cost be damned? Or perhaps you'd rather avoid raising taxes regardless that many schools would have to be converted to year-round status?

Stop the presses! "Avoid raising taxes" beats "spend the milk money" like a cheap rug!

Oh, sure, I'm paraphrasing the questions, but only a little--read the originals in The N&O if you think I'm kidding--which is why the latest poll on the Wake schools issue is even more worthless than several previous worthless polls.

Any poll taken six months prior to the actual election, before the campaign's even started, is not going to tell you beans about how it will come out. What it will tell you, if your questions are on the mark, is how it would come out if it were held right now.

But if you ask people, as The N&O/WRAL poll did, whether they "favor or oppose" a bond issue that would both raise their taxes and result in mandatory year-round schools for the elementary kids, and you've already indicated, in a previous question, that a tax increase can somehow be avoided while still providing "enough room for new students" (and old ones too? not clear), then guess what?

Those against tax hikes will say they're opposed, and those against mandatory year-round schools will also say they're opposed--and who isn't against "mandatory" stuff, come to think of it. ("This is still a free country," an anti-mandatory parent declared at the Wake County commissioners' meeting on Monday.)

Put the two anti- camps together, and you'll have 59 percent opposed, as The N&O/WRAL did, which only means that a lot of folks think there must be a better way, and the election's not 'til November, so you'd better keep trying.

Here, I would add, is a better question, particularly as it was the first question asked in a survey two weeks ago by Dean Debnam's Raleigh firm, Public Policy Polling. "If the election were held today," PPP asked (my emphasis), "would you vote for or against the proposed $994 million Wake County Schools bond referendum?" The winner: "For" defeated "against," 48 percent to 41 percent.

* * *

I'd second the motion made Monday to the Wake commissioners by Raleigh's Louise Lee (whose group, "Save Our Summers," is against mandatory year-round elementaries) to keep politics out of the schools issue. Except it's too late for that, and has been ever since the Pilgrims started teaching the three R's: reading, 'riting and the New Testament Bible. But there's helpful and hurtful politics, and I'm putting Wake Commissioner Herb Council's e-mail to school board member Beverly Clark in the helpful category, for the following reason.

Two weeks ago, before Council wrote it, the school board was as stuck as a herd of deer in the headlights. They wanted to ask the voters for a bond issue of at least $1.3 billion, but they'd been scared off--most of them--by polls purporting to show that a bond package that large would be defeated. Desperate to nudge the number below $1 billion while not digging the school-facilities hole any deeper than it already is, they'd signed on to a cockamamie scheme of converting every non-magnet elementary school to a year-round calendar. That would save a whopping $150 million, according to the Wake schools staff, while ticking off thousands of otherwise school-supporting parents.

No question, school board members feared that Wake's anti-taxers on the right, in the persons of state Rep. Russell Capps & his small band of Wake Taxpayers Association members, would be looking to slaughter any really big bond issue in November as they did so (in)famously in 1999. But what board members really feared was that the Wake commissioners, currently controlled by a 5-2 Republican majority, would hang them out for the Capps crowd to flog: The commissioners would authorize putting a $1 billion-plus bond on the ballot (perhaps even by a split vote of the two Democrats and two of the five Republicans), but thereafter would make it clear--or the Republicans would--that they thought the bond was (ahem) too much--and should be voted down.

But Council, a Republican, declared that wasn't so. He was prepared to back a bond of $1.9 billion if the school board asked for it, he wrote. Moreover, he was prepared to support the tax hike needed to pay for it. And, Council added, there were at least three other Wake commissioners who'd be with him. "Stop blaming the commissioners for the year-round school issue," he demanded.

Some of my Democrat friends feared, upon reading Council's letter, that it was akin to Lucy tricking Charlie Brown--that once the school board advanced toward the teed-up $1 billion-plus bond, Council's Republican friends would yank their support away.

Council's not running for re-election, it's true. And it's doubtful that his replacement on the Republican ticket, the conservative ex-Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, agrees with him. Nor Commissioner Phil Jeffreys, the crusty conservative, for that matter. And Commissioners' Chair Tony Gurley's position's up in the air.

But Republican Commissioner Joe Bryan told me on Monday that he does agree with Council. And so, apparently, does Republican Commissioner Kenn Gardner, who's been floating his own $1.6 billion alternative package (it's complicated) along with an e-mail that begins: "Dear _____, I believe that the school system is not asking our community for enough bond funding to catch up with student growth...."

As of Tuesday, the school board was reconsidering its options, with a majority reportedly ready to drop the mandatory year-round idea and ask for a bigger bond instead.

But whatever the school board asks for, the decision on what to put in front of the voters is up to the Wake commissioners.

A month ago, it looked like the Republican-led Board of County Commissioners would stand by while the school board cut its own throat. But that would've been politics of the worst kind--so bad, maybe, that it would've backfired on Republican commissioners themselves.

Anyway, Council & Bryan & Gardner, at least, are prepared to do the right thing, along with the two Democrats, Betty Lou Ward and Harold Webb, presumably. And the right thing is to start digging the county out of the huge hole it's gotten itself into school-facilities-wise. As Bryan said Monday, it'll take $4 billion to $5 billion over the next 10 years to fill the gap--and this bond, whatever its size, is just the first of three or four that will be needed.

Which is one reason he winced when he saw The N&O/WRAL poll, Bryan said. The public needs to know that the school issue isn't going away, and it can't be solved without higher taxes. Bipartisan leadership, and six months, should do the job.

Impact of impact fees

With the issue of higher taxes decided--right?--we come to the issue of which higher taxes. You'd almost suspect that The N&O makes most of its money from real-estate ads the way it (and pardner WRAL) posed the question on impact fees in its latest poll. As Justin Guillory, who works for PPP, said dryly, it doesn't bring out the best in people to ask them whether they'd like to tack an impact fee onto each new housing unit without suggesting what the benefit would be. "Would you favor or oppose an impact fee on new home construction that could add $3,000 to $5,000 to the cost of a new home?" the N&O/WRAL pollster asked. Well, oppose, 58 percent to 29 percent, of course.

Duh.

But here we come to the real political issue. Democratic candidates for county commissioners, especially Rodger Koopman, are campaigning all-out for impact fees as opposed to just property taxes. Yes, the General Assembly would have to authorize them, so it's an idea for the future. But the Republicans, even Bryan and Council, are either flat-out against impact fees or else lukewarm to the point of, er, they just don't think the General Assembly would let them.

I pause here for an anecdote. As we're waiting for the public comment period Monday, the Wake commissioners lauded their outgoing county planning board chair and welcomed their new one. Outgoing? Mason Williams, developer. Incoming: Beth Trahos, developers' lawyer. Yes, developers enjoy "strong support" among the commissioners, too, children.

So now up comes Ken Kirby, lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County, to tell Bryan (in my presence, but Kirby does not know me) that The N&O/WRAL poll sure put that impact-fee issue to rest, eh?

To which I say--I don't think so. He and I make a plan to have a lunch.

Back to my point. The N&O, for whatever reason, insists on saying, as it did Sunday in "explaining" impact fees, that "technically, developers pay the fee. [But] in practice, they almost always pass the cost along to home buyers through higher prices."

Really? So the builders could charge, say, $305,000 for a new home now (including the county's current impact fee for schools of--yes--zero), but they choose instead to price it at $300K ($299,900, and the laminate counters are included) out of the goodness of their bidness-lovin' hearts.

But should the county add on a $5,000 impact fee, say, they'll just have to get all mean and charge the full $305,000, because the market will certainly bear it, even though most of the other homes for sale (not being new) won't carry the $5,000 fee?

This is ridiculous. Developers will pass on the fee if they can, which in most competitive markets they cannot. They will have to absorb some or all of it themselves.

I'll go now to my second anecdote. You never heard more weeping about impact fees than from the Toll Brothers' top representative in Raleigh, Tom Anhut, when the city's impact fees were at issue this spring. Toll Brothers is the developer of Brier Creek, among other things.

Well, Toll Brothers, according to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer, enjoyed an average 13.9 percent after-tax profit on every home it sold last year, and its average home sold for $680,000. Translation: It earned $92,500 per house after taxes and all costs, including impact fees.

In Wake County, the impact fee for schools on a Toll Brothers house: zero. Profits? Priceless.

When PPP polled the impact-fee question, it asked it a different way--the right way. Should the costs of growth fall solely on current taxpayers, via property taxes, or should the developers pay some of it, too, with impact fees? Put that way, the voters liked impact fees by a margin of 76 percent to 5 percent.

Which is another thing about polls.

Write Citizen at rjgeary@mac.com.

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