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.


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.

Bartlett, who cosponsored the Senate bill with Tempe Republican Doug Todd, saw estimates that the tax could raise up to $3 million annually. That's also the professed aim of Mesa Representative Mark Killian, who is sponsoring identical legislation in the House. Killian, who chairs the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, has campaigned for election in previous years on platforms of limiting taxes. "To tell you the truth, we're looking at a revenue generator," Killian says.

Yet Killian also is sponsoring legislation to eliminate the state sales tax on the leasing of commercial property, a move that eventually would cost the state about $170 million annually. Killian says this tax, which is imposed in only five states, harms not only the business people who have to rent space but also makes it harder for owners of these buildings to attract tenants to Arizona from states without the tax. Killian should know: He owns four shopping centers in the East Valley.

The real point is that the excuses offered by proponents don't address the real issue--or the real users.

Killian estimates that Arizona consumers buy about three million packages of rolling papers a year. And, he says, there aren't that many people in this state, even with its Wild West roots, who still hand-roll tobacco cigarettes. "A lot of people are rolling their own marijuana cigarettes," Killian confesses. "And if that's the way to get to them, fine."

Killian and his cohorts also figured that neither the dopers nor the manufacturers of rolling papers would lobby to protect their interests. What they didn't count on is that pouches and tins of Top Tobacco include rolling papers, which would be subject to the fee. That brought out Rich Scheffel, whose client is Republic Tobacco Co., which distributes Top.

Scheffel wasted no time in badmouthing the bill. Like any good lobbyist, he explained that it wasn't just his client's sales he was protecting. He predicted the tax would create a new black market in rolling papers.

Scheffel managed to get an amendment on the bill to exempt any papers from the tax where they were sold with loose tobacco (which just happens to benefit only his client). But, by this time, the damage to the idea was done and, on Thursday, the bill went up in smoke.

SEAL OF DISAPPROVAL Only last month state lawmakers publicly berated the University of Arizona for spending more than $29,000 to redesign the school's logo. But Arizona State University apparently wasn't paying attention: It's pushing ahead with plans to pay someone big bucks for a similar job.

Bids were opened Monday from consultants who want the job of redesigning stationery for ASU President J. Russell Nelson and all of the university vice presidents. Part of that job, according to university documents, includes coming up with a new logo.

The problem, according to Bob Ellis, ASU vice president for university relations, is that there are almost as many letterhead designs and logos being used on campus as there are departments. He insists that there is no way to save money by simply ordering all departments to use the same letterhead.

"This is a university," he explains. "Universities don't work quite that well where a dictum comes from on high to the athletic department or the political science department. It's usually done through a consensus."

Anyway, Ellis says, this isn't a simple project. The notice to bidders states there is a need for "a well-defined, recognizable, visible image for the university that will lend consistency while accommodating a richness of sub-images reflecting the components of the university; e.g., College of Fine Arts, athletic department, ASU West Campus, College of Law, et cetera."

UofA lobbyist Greg Fahey tried a similar explanation of the $29,012 spent by his school on a new logo. He said the successful bidder didn't simply design a new "A." It also required six flights to the UofA campus--at a cost of about $8,000--to "inventory" what symbols and logos already were being used and "research" how best to represent the university.

State Representative John Kromko, a Tucson Democrat, didn't swallow that explanation by Fahey. And he is equally unimpressed by what is happening at the Tempe campus.

The complaints by Kromko and others may have an effect. Ellis says it is possible that the university might just decide that the job could be done just as well "in-house," perhaps even having a student or teacher do the work. (That's similar to what Kromko suggested to the UofA.)

Ellis also allows that the best action may be inaction, at least for now. He realizes that the universities are complaining about Mofford's cost-cutting orders. "We've lived with what we've got for 100 years," Ellis says. "Another few years wouldn't make a difference."

Maybe that will give them more time to figure out why they wound up with more students than classes available.

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Howard Fischer