Today I attended the first annual conference of the California League of Bond Oversight Committees (CalBOC) in Sacramento.
Several speakers provided guidance on how to be an effective oversight committee for a school district and provided case studies of dysfunctional oversight committees. But for me, the most valuable part of the conference was learning that foolish bond sales to finance school construction today are leaving our children and grandchildren with a tremendous tax burden in 20 to 40 years.
Walking into the conference, I knew little about municipal bonds. Unlike many Californians, I had understood that taxpayers must pay back the principal on these bonds, must pay back significant interest payments to the investors who buy the bonds, and must pay fees for various professional services associated with selling the bonds. Bonds are not “free money.”
I will guess that even Californians who know that a bond creates a debt that needs to be paid back usually don’t consider that voters who approve a $100 million bond are usually assessing property owners with taxes of about $180 million (amount not adjusted for inflation) over the term of the bond, when interest payments and fees are included in the total debt.
Traditionally, school districts have sold typical “General Obligation Bonds,” in which investors buy bonds, receive regular interest payments, and then receive the principal at the end of the term of the bond. But the growing problem for future generations of Californians is that they will need to pay off more than 1200 “Capital Appreciation Bonds” (CABs) to fund school construction (or to fund the funding of school construction, in a few cases).
Capital Appreciation Bonds are sold at a price substantially less than the principal amount of the bond. Investors don’t receive interest payments regularly over the life of the bond, but instead get a single huge payment of the principal plus the accumulated compounded interest at the end of the term of the bond.
People tend to underestimate the power of compounded interest, in which interest is earned on the principal AND on the accumulated interest. One speaker claimed that Poway Unified School District (in San Diego County) sold 40-year Capital Appreciation Bonds that will cost taxpayers 2200% of the principal because of the compounded interest.
Elected school boards like Capital Appreciation Bonds because they defer payments on the principal and backload interest payments to the final years before maturity, therefore keeping the present tax rate for property owners under the maximum rate set in Proposition 39 as a condition to seek 55% voter approval for the bond (rather than two-thirds approval).
Evading higher property taxes helps school board members to stay in public office, of course. And the huge debt service payments resulting from the compounded interest in Capital Appreciation Bonds will start for taxpayers 30 to 40 years after the bonds are issued, at which time many of the voters who approved the bond measures will be dead, as well as the school board members who authorized the sale of Capital Appreciation Bonds so many years earlier.
Does this story seem far-fetched because you’ve never heard of it? I think ordinary citizens rarely hear about municipal bonds because the topic can be complicated and dry. It doesn’t sell newspapers and it doesn’t attract TV viewers. Perhaps my layman status will allow me in occasional blog posts over the next few weeks to clearly and effectively explain the long-term dangers of these Capital Appreciation Bonds.