Longform

Sun City Disease

Page 4 of 9

"We are trying to consider some way to get the commercial back in the district," says Eleanor Nelson, board member and former member of Citizens for Tax Equity. How that can be done is anyone's guess.

In 1992, Del Webb bought another 1,800 acres of land adjacent to Sun City West and started building houses, and as seniors moved into that expansion area, the school squabbling began anew.

Citizens for Tax Equity holds that Del Webb was deceitful in its sales pitch, making the seniors believe that their taxes would be lower, a notion refuted by a quick trip to the Sun City West information center. There New Times encountered a half-dozen senior volunteers who asked what kind of fool would buy any real estate without knowing what the property taxes were. They personally had no problems paying school taxes.

But that is an entirely different thing from being offered an opportunity to vote yourself out of them.

The anti-tax activists have also attacked the city of Surprise, demanding that it consider a moratorium on growth and that it consider charging impact fees as have been imposed in Apache Junction to pay for new schools. Impact fees are one-time fees charged to new houses, but they are constitutionally questionable. For one thing, a family of 12 could move into an old house and not have to pay them, while a family with no children could move into a new house and have to. Surprise officials thought they would tax potential homeowners out of the market. Furthermore, school districts and municipalities are separate jurisdictions, making it difficult to pass monies between them. And unlike Apache Junction, the school and city boundaries of Dysart and Surprise do not coincide.

City officials also told the new anti-tax school board that impact fees would not generate enough money to build schools in a timely manner.

"They did not believe it," says Mayor Shaefer. "Mr. Koch wanted to turn around and pay $1,500 to bring in an authority on impact fees. Now here's a school district that's crying that they have no money to put doors on the rest rooms in a school [an issue the new board members brought up]: $1,500 could cover a lot of doors, couldn't it?"

The Reverend Mitchell Eickmann, one of the holdovers from the old school board, says, "Koch's idea is always to make somebody else pay. If a plan came up that we could make the state of New Mexico responsible for our funding, he would be for it."

Koch, on the other hand, rightfully points to the district's desire that the retirees stay out of school issues altogether.

"They keep telling us they don't want us on the school board," he says. "All they want us to do is pay our taxes and keep our mouths shut. That's all Del Webb wants us to do. On the other hand, with the application of democracy, we got three members on the board. They don't like that. But the point is, if we stay in the district, we stay on the school board. If they let us out, then we're not on the school board anymore and they can do what they want."

From there the battle gets dogmatic and emotional.
"I think it's more of a belief than an emotional thing," says Pam Justice, the other holdover Dysart school board member. "I think people believe across these United States that it's everybody's responsibility to educate kids and nobody should be able to vote themselves out of that tax responsibility. I think that's the issue. It gets emotional because it is an American belief system."

Mitch Eickmann recalls that when he took office on the Dysart school board in January 1994, the meetings already buzzed with the paranoia among certain factions of the senior community that the district was somehow hiding funds.

Eickmann sports a beard and an earring, and he speaks with the gentle manner of a pastor, which he is. He ministers to a Spanish-language congregation called Pan de vida, which means "bread of life," a reference to the metaphor and sacrament of Communion. Though he is Anglo, his wife is Hispanic, as is his parish, and in effect, he was elected as a stealth candidate.

No minority has been elected to the board since 1992, he points out, and when he ran, a Hispanic candidate posted a vigorous campaign while Eickmann did next to nothing. Then, as he relates, "when the final vote came out, I was the second-highest vote getter. Both Pam [Justice] and I scored very high in the new areas and the retired areas."

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Michael Kiefer