Longform

Sun City Disease

Page 5 of 9

He assumes that was because they both had Anglo names.
Eickmann was board president through a series of failed bond and override elections.

School funding is broken into capital and M&O, which means "maintenance and operations," and the two budgets cannot easily be mixed. Capital, the money to build and repair schools, comes from borrowing money through bonds sold against the assessed valuation of home and business property in the district and then paid back by imposing property taxes on home and business owners. This is the system that the Arizona state Supreme Court has judged unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to rethink.

M&O is the money that runs an annual budget, paying salaries and costs of operating a school district. It is doled out by the state according to a per-pupil formula. The more students a district has, the more M&O money it gets. And if the district feels it needs more, it can ask the voters in the district for a budget override, also paid back through property taxes.

Between 1995 and 1997, four bonds and/or override elections failed in Dysart, the first of them a $25 million bond and a $1.5 million override in March 1995.

"Immediately, they blamed it on the seniors, because the bond issue didn't pass," recalls Bill Nelson, a retired businessman whose wife Eleanor would later be elected to the board. "I didn't vote. I didn't care." But he was miffed at being blamed. "We began to look at what's going on here," he says.

The Supreme Court had already ruled against the state's practice of relying entirely on bonding to fund school construction, so it would have been unwise to pass a bond before knowing the outcome of the state's revised building funding plan. The seniors had good enough business sense to realize that.

"We'd be paying through the nose for the next 12 or 15 years," Bill Nelson continues. "And maybe next month the Legislature was going to get off its butt and have different funding to satisfy the mandate of our state's Supreme Court."

A month later, Citizens for Tax Equity took shape. The district met with the group and asked if it'd approve a lesser bond, in the amount of $10 million, and then instead, in May 1995, put another $25 million bond up for election, which also failed.

Then logic disappeared altogether. After two consecutive $25 million issues were deemed too expensive by the electorate, the board came back, in March 1996, with a new bond issue for $55 million.

The seniors were outraged and voted it down, as well. And when word spread that the seniors were voting down tax increases smaller than their annual greens fees at Sun City golf courses, even the meeker of Sun City Westers began to take umbrage and take sides.

"They're trying to make patsies of us," fumes Bill Nelson. "They're blaming us because it didn't pass, even though their people didn't get out to vote and they outnumber us four or five to one, and blaming us and calling us racists and saying we're harassing Hispanics, and all these nasty mean things. Now if you were in my shoes, would it make sense to vote for a bond issue with all this going on and with the possibility that there's going to be new financing?"

Still, the schools were increasingly in need.
"We have some big capital needs in terms of repairs at the existing schools," says Mitch Eickmann. "But there was also anticipating the growth we have in the district, anticipating at least a new elementary school."

"I definitely hold the state of Arizona responsible for some of the school-finance issues that affect the district," says superintendent Jesus de la Garza. "But it's an issue across the state. I also hold the Citizens for Tax Equity responsible for keeping us from accessing the only monies that are available through the two major avenues that we have, and that's to bond or have a budget override election."

Some perspective: Bonds may soon be moot; overrides likely will not. Last November, the Dysart district commissioned a report from the bonding firm of Peacock, Hislop, Staley & Given to show just how much those bonds and overrides would cost taxpayers, with and without deannexation.

Assuming a very conservative growth rate in assessed valuation of 10 percent per year, a $1.5 million override would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $78.72 per year. But even if the deannexation were to go through, the same override would cost the same homeowner $127.10 per year.

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Michael Kiefer