In Sun City, It's Age Before Duty

The residents of Sun City and Sun City West just want some equity. But not too much.

To hear state Representative Nancy Wessel tell it, the huge retirement communities are being treated unfairly because state lawmakers last year began requiring them to help support public schools.

The residents figured they had it made, having managed to exclude themselves from any school district. Sun Citians accomplished this in the mid-Seventies by nothing short of extortion: Every time the Peoria School District tried to pass a bond issue to build new schools, the retirees--who outnumbered the folks with families--voted no. The school district was just as happy to be rid of them, figuring whatever it lost in tax revenues was worth the price.

But last year, when the state found itself in a budget crunch, some lawmakers noted that the state kicks in more than $1.1 billion of its $2.8 billion operating budget for direct aid to schools and figured that Sun City residents shouldn't go scot- free. So they ordered that property owners not living in organized school districts pay the same minimum tax rate imposed in virtually every unified school district.

The $4.72 per $100 tax rate means the owner of a home appraised for tax purposes at $50,000 would pay $238 per year. Mind you, the lawmakers didn't do this all at once. Instead they agreed to a multiyear phase-in--this year the tax is only $25 for that same $50,000 home--though business owners were hit all at once. The screams still are being heard. So Republican Wessel--whose district includes much of the affected area--agreed to sponsor legislation to require Sun Citians to pay only half of the minimum tax rate.

Wessel says the retirees are willing to pay their fair share. And it is true that last year's hastily enacted tax does have an inequity: The homeowners, while paying the minimum tax rate, are ineligible for the 56 percent rebate available to homeowners living in school districts.

The argument of the blue-haired set has been that they don't have school-age children, which means they don't put a burden on the school system and therefore shouldn't have to pay the tax. Forget that someone else paid to put them through school: A 1987 study by the county showed that nearly 80 percent of the residents were high school graduates. In Peoria, by contrast, the figure was less than 60 percent. (Peoria residents pay a $4.88 tax rate for basic school operations. That does not include another $2.68 to pay off borrowing for things like school buildings.)

And forget that, when they did have children, other people--including retirees in their home communities--helped pick up the tab.

It's just a matter of equity, Wessel says. Of course, that doesn't mean that Sun Citians want equity in all areas.

Take the fire department, for instance. This year taxpayers throughout Maricopa County are paying nearly $1.2 million to subsidize fire departments in unincorporated areas. About half of that went to the fire departments in Sun City and Sun City West. Residents of places like Phoenix, Tempe and even Peoria are paying not only for their own fire protection through city taxes but also are helping to pay for fire protection for others elsewhere.

Would Wessel favor eliminating the subsidy to fire departments? "I'm not sure," she says. "I haven't studied it."

Other expenses are less easy to quantify. Both city dwellers and their counterparts in unincorporated areas pay to operate county government. Some functions benefit all, such as operation of the health department. But other expenses paid for countywide clearly benefit only the noncity people.

A 1987 county study concluded, for example, that Sun City received more than $1.2 million worth of services that year from the county sheriff's department for patrolling their roads and protecting their homes.

From time to time there are moves to incorporate Sun City and Sun City West. But why bother? If either community became a city, residents would have to pay city property taxes and city sales taxes to help support a local police department. Worse yet, they'd be just like the people in Peoria, having to pay county taxes to pay for sheriff's deputies to patrol somewhere else. And that, no doubt, would not be equitable.

WHY DO YOU THINK THEY CALL THEM DOPES?

How does a bill that is approved by a state Senate committee 9-0 end up being crushed 10-17 on the floor? The appearance of a lobbyist helps.

Three state legislators--two Maricopa County Republicans and a Tucson Democrat--figured they had a sure thing when they proposed a hefty tax on rolling papers. The penny-a-paper proposal--more than doubling the cost of a package of rolling papers--would raise several million dollars for the financially strapped state.

"We tax cigarettes at over a penny apiece," explains Democratic Senator David Bartlett. "We tax beer at a penny a can." He says this is just a way of ensuring that those who choose to roll their own also pay their fair share.

But the fact is that the tax on cigarettes in Arizona is less than a penny apiece. And Arizona already imposes a tax on loose tobacco to the tune of two cents per ounce. The levy on rolling papers would mean that cowpokes and others who find a hand-rolled cigarette preferable to a Marlboro would pay more in taxes than their buy-the-pack city cousins.

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