Longform

Polygamy in Arizona: The Wages of Sin

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A former teacher, Barlow shakes the hand of each of his four secretaries and four administrative aides every morning. He and his brother Dan, who has served as Colorado City's first and only mayor for 18 years, are the primary spokesmen for the town's polygamous society (Prophet Warren Jeffs, who assumed the role of spiritual leader after his father's death last September, rarely speaks to the outside world). The brothers carefully cultivate the city's image as a place steeped in traditional family values despite widespread accounts that fundamentalists are pushing underage girls into polygamous marriages.

Alvin Barlow takes great pride in his ability to find bargains at state surplus sales and has dispatched large teams of students, teachers and parents to retrieve desks, tables and chairs from state offices for later use in Colorado City. Many of the items are eventually resold by the school district at garage-sale prices to private and church-run schools, district records show.

Barlow's public frugality, however, cannot mask the deep financial problems facing the school district.

The district Barlow oversees covers an immense, unpopulated area that has a very low assessed property valuation. The district is 25 miles wide and extends from the Utah state line to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. Most of the land is controlled by the government, and no taxes are owed to the district for it. Thus, it has one of the highest tax rates in the state.

More than half of the taxable land in the school district is controlled by the FLDS' United Effort Plan. The UEP pays about $800,000 a year in property taxes to Mohave County for property it owns in Colorado City. The assessed valuation of UEP land is kept artificially low. Mohave County taxes many UEP properties at half the normal rate because occupied homes are rarely listed as fully completed, county records show.

Less than half of the $800,000 in UEP property taxes is redistributed to the school district. The district receives about $405,000 a year in local property taxes from Colorado City, Centennial Park and outlying areas. Local property taxes account for only one-tenth of the district's $4.2 million annual budget that comes primarily from state and federal sources.

For more than a decade, the UEP has recouped most if not all of its property taxes allocated to the school district through favorable leases with the district. The practice of funneling taxpayer money back to the UEP and other church entities permeates school district finances.

For decades, the depressed tax base prevented the district from raising enough money to build new school facilities. Instead, the district entered into leases for facilities that were built and owned by a UEP-controlled entity, the Colorado City Improvement Association.

By June 2000, the school district was leasing three association-owned buildings for the elementary and junior high schools, plus additional properties for storage facilities, a health-care building and a bus-maintenance barn.

The school district was paying more than $316,000 a year for the leases which seemed outrageous even to members of the school board, who are ever mindful of offending UEP and church officials and running the risk of losing everything.

"These leases eat us up," said school board member Scott Jessop at a July 2000 board meeting.

The leases with the Colorado City Improvement Association cost the district at least $3.1 million between 1992 and June 2000, district records show.

But the lease deals at least as far as students, teachers and taxpayers were concerned were about to make a bad situation worse.

FLDS' Sweet Deal

The church leaders' demand that ties be severed with apostates came in July 2000, and it triggered a series of events resulting in the school district transferring property it had paid for to the Colorado City Improvement Association at a substantial loss.

The sudden withdrawal of 60 percent of its students left the district with more classroom space than it immediately needed.

But it was obvious that children from the large and ever-expanding polygamous families from the 2nd Ward, combined with others moving into nearby communities, would eventually fill up the classroom space.

As unfavorable as the lease agreements were to the district, they were providing space for this future population.

The district had funds from the state's rapid-decline subsidy that could have covered the costs of holding the empty classrooms for future use. That is, if that money had not been spent on personal expenses, excessive travel, capital purchases and abnormally high staffing.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty