Sun City Disease

Every 10 years, retirement communities sweat local school-funding increases and flare up in anti-tax fever. This year's infection is in the Dysart Unified School District.

There is little threat that the deannexation initiative will pass, given the manner in which the election is structured. And the driving issue--secondary property taxes to fund school capital improvements--may soon be a nonissue. It will be rendered moot if the state Legislature finally does its job and comes up with a more equitable school-finance concept. There won't be any more bonds, not in Dysart anyway.

When that happens, the three or four board members who ran on a no-tax platform will have to decide whether to stay on the board. And if they leave, there will be nothing left but the hard feelings.

Dysart is a growing district. Its 140 square miles stretch from Jomax Road on the north to Glendale Avenue on the south, and from 115th Avenue on the east to the White Tank Mountains. It covers Luke Air Force Base, all of the town of El Mirage, the lion's share of Surprise, and parts of Youngtown and Sun City West. It has four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.

Its residents form a socioeconomic pastiche. Though the seniors complain about having fixed incomes, they are hardly living in the Westward Ho and eating cat food out of cans. A spokesman for the Del Webb Corporation, which builds and markets the Sun Cities, places them in the upper echelons of retiree income. Their houses, though not necessarily sumptuous, still dwarf the lower-income homes of the longtime residents, rural Hispanics who have spent generations working the farms and ranches of the northwest Valley.

The rose and broccoli and cotton fields where they worked, however, are rapidly giving way to development, not only to retirement communities, but to generic red-tile-roof homes bought up by yuppies who can't afford to live closer in to Phoenix. Those new white folks don't necessarily want their children to attend the poorer schools on the Spanish side of the district. Instead they ship them out to neighboring districts. To date, student flight has slowed the growth of the student body at Dysart and put off the need for new schools. For now.

Meanwhile, the district is at a standstill, stalled by allegations of mismanagement, stalled by the Legislature's foot dragging, stalled by infighting and finger pointing. The seniors demand public apologies of the school district. The holdovers from the old board accuse the newcomers of subterfuge and even of violating the state's open-meeting laws. Meanwhile, the business of running a school gets caught in the crossfire.

"The neighborhood is great," says Lisa Rodriguez, who moved to Surprise from inner-city Phoenix for her children's sake and safety. "The family life, the community is wonderful for children to grow up in. The school district is awful."

Bob Koch pays secondary property taxes, his neighbors don't.
"There's a wall right behind my property," he says. "On the other side of that wall are the roofs of the houses that pay one third of the taxes I pay. I can throw a rock there and hit the tops of the roofs."

Koch is a wiry 59-year-old with a white mustache and a terminal New York accent that resisted a career-long stay in Washington, D.C., where he was an attorney for the federal government.

In private conversation, he is courteously direct. In school board meetings, he is caustic and authoritarian. He came to the fray as the president of the Sun City West group that calls itself Citizens for Tax Equity. How he got there is anyone's guess, because he confesses that he doesn't particularly like life in a retirement community and finds its residents opinionated.

"If I ever leave here, I will not live in another age-restricted community," he says.

As property taxes go, the Dysart district's are in the lowest quartile, compared to other districts. Taxes are based on assessed value, which is about 10 percent of full cash value, which is about 82 percent of market value: In other words, a $100,000 house would have a full cash value of $82,000 and an assessed value of $8,200. Koch pays $6.93 per $100 of assessed valuation. But his neighbors pay just $2.20. Clearly this is not equitable, but rather than campaign to spread that tax burden to the Sun Cities, his tax-equity group has instead lobbied to be likewise relieved of the tax responsibility.

"It would be social suicide," Koch says. "Everything else in Sun City West is one, all the clubs, everything is together. This is the only thing that divides us."

Not everyone believes that they are motivated by a sense of what's fair.
"They don't want tax equity, they want to dump their tax burden on somebody else," says Dick McComb, city manager for Surprise and a former school board member.

Because the Sun Cities lie in unincorporated areas of Maricopa County, they do not have police or streets departments and instead depend on the county to provide those services. Surprise funds its own municipal departments with a sales tax, which Sun City residents complain about.

"You pay county taxes, I pay county taxes, we all pay county taxes," says Surprise Mayor Joan Shaefer. "Those county taxes go towards their streets, their police, towards the fire district. So you are helping to subsidize their amenities. County has 14 riding mowers that are kept for nothing but to do the medians in the old Sun City. And to me, that is an inequity."

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