Longform

Sun City Disease

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"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."

But they are a strong and wealthy Republican voting bloc. Democratic representative Ken Cheuvront recently tried to introduce legislation that would double the qualifying tax rate in the Sun Cities. Despite its popularity at the Capitol, the bill was allegedly ordered "disappeared" by Senate president Brenda Burns, whose district includes parts of Sun City.

"I am a grandparent and my grandchildren are going to school someplace," Shaefer continues. "Now somebody there, probably my age or maybe older, is helping to pay for that education. I don't feel that anybody has the right to state that they just don't want to pay school taxes anymore."

This tax question and the school-takeover tactics have arisen before, under dubiously similar circumstances, first in the 1970s in Sun City, then in Sun City West in the 1980s, and now again in the 1990s, as if it were some kind of age-related disease that strikes every 10 years.

"I think it's something in the water," jokes Pam Justice, a longtime area rancher and farmer whose school board seat is up for grabs in next week's recall election.

"It's a clustering of people with like minds," she continues. "When the person across the street and the people on both sides of you believe the same thing you believe, you can't be wrong."

Sun City was first marketed as retirement paradise in 1961, and the first documented cases of Sun City disease struck soon afterward.

Sun City was part of the Peoria school district, and then as now, senior citizens would come to school board meetings with lists of questions about district budgets. Between 1962 and 1973, five of eight bond issues failed in the district, and it became very clear that they would have passed in the city of Peoria but were failing in Sun City.

By 1973, the schools were so crowded that the district was forced into double sessions, and classes were held anywhere the space could be found, including church buildings.

Then-superintendent Mel Huber came up with a solution.
"I found an old law that provided a way for them to leave," recalls Huber, who is now retired himself.

"Philosophically, I didn't think they should be relieved of taxpaying responsibility, but it was the only option."

The retirees left the district in 1974, and business resumed. Peoria has built a school or more every year since.

In 1981, the disease struck again. Residents of Sun City West took over the Dysart school district and literally held it hostage. A $950,000 bond had been passed the year before, but the new board rescinded it. Then it proposed a deannexation election which in effect is two elections, one inside the area that wants to secede, and one in the remaining area. Both areas have to approve the measure, regardless of how many actual votes are cast: In the 1981 election, more than 2,000 Sun City Westers turned out and voted overwhelmingly to deannex; only 500 voters showed at the polls from the remaining Dysart district, but they, too, thought they would be better off without the Sun City West dissent, and the deannexation passed.

As part of the deal, the citizens of Sun City West tossed a tax bone to the district. A planned commercial district at the center of Sun City West would stay on the tax rolls. The idea failed, however: What sensible businessman would build in such a commercial core when he can just as easily locate across the street in a tax-free zone? Eventually, homes instead of businesses sprouted in the planned commercial core, and those homeowners still pay taxes.

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Michael Kiefer