By Philip Haldiman
The Peoria Unified School District Governing Board approved a 15% maintenance and operations override on a split vote, but not without a crowded room of senior citizens bearing down in opposition to the proposed property tax increase.
Dozens of residents from the Corte Bella retirement community, located in a county island adjacent to Peoria and Sun City West, showed up to have their voices heard, largely in the name of what they say is fairness.
Residents of the 1,650-home development say they must pay a portion of their property taxes to Peoria Unified School District while nearby retirement communities Sun City and Sun City West are exempt from some taxes.
Corte Bella resident Hal Reed said his property taxes are $3,042 a year, with $1,740 going to the school district. He said the override will increase his taxes $442 a year.
Under the current 13% override a homeowner with a home value of $100,000 pays $145 in taxes annually. District officials say the proposed 15% override that will eventually be considered by voters is estimated to increase to $168 annually, or about $2 per month, for a house of the same value.
“I think this is grossly unfair because there are thousands of people that live in Sun City and Sun City West that don’t pay taxes at all. It kind of makes me think of the term taxation without representation used in the Revolutionary War,” he said. “I think this tax will be a burden on senior citizens who are retired on a fixed income. We may have to decide between food, utilities, or medicine.”
Seniors shared many reasons they opposed the override, saying an increase could force them to move and the district has not been transparent with its budget.
Diane Smith, chairperson of the Corte Bella governmental affairs committee, estimates $100 million in Corte Bella residents’ taxes has gone to the district since 2003. She suggested a senior tax that would exempt anybody over 65 from voting in school-related elections.
“We have spent a year trying to figure out how to jump through the hoops to meet the requirements to remove our community from your school district … I would like you to know we have received nothing from Peoria and we send no children to your schools,” she said. “We are not opposed to paying taxes, but this is why you are not passing them — because 37-38% of the people who vote in these elections are seniors living on fixed incomes. This is affecting our ability to live. I am a widow. I can’t afford these continued tax hikes.”
The divided school board ended in a 3-2 approval of the 15% override, with support from President Monica Ceja Martinez, as well as governing board members David Sandoval and Cory Underhill. Governing board members Beverly Pingerelli and Judy Doane voted against the proposal.
Ms. Ceja Martinez said the override will allow the district to ensure it has quality teachers as well as safety measures and programs in place to serve all children.
“As a governing board and as a community, if we have an opportunity to provide a resource to save a child from being injured, to save their life or to impact others, I want to invest in that child because if something happens to that child, it’s not just the child that is impacted,” she said.
Maintenance and operations overrides cover things such as programs and employee wages.
Mr. Sandoval said the district needs those dollars to enhance security at schools and programs that will make students feel safe.
“You could view this as an increase in taxes, and yes it is that in a financial regard. But when you humanize what we are doing as a school district, it is truly an investment in our youth which is our most valuable asset,” he said. “It is an investment in our future. And there is data that backs this up, with what the district does in regard to lower crime rates, better home values, economics, etc. So we do make an impact outside those homes that may not have children going to our schools, and in the surrounding community.”
However, Ms. Doane said there’s a good chance the 15% override could fail, which would put the district in the situation of trying to go for a bond and an override in the same year. A tax increase probably isn’t needed and teachers are getting raises, she said.
“We need to look at where some of our money is going. I’m just going to say — I don’t know why our money is going to all-day kindergarten instead of counselors and nurses. I don’t understand that. How many people do we know that didn’t have all-day kindergarten and did perfectly good in their life,” she said. “There is money there for the support that is needed. We do need assistants in the classroom. We do need our nurses and counselors, but if we take that money that is being used for all-day kindergarten, I don’t see why we can’t have all those things and I believe all those things are more necessary than all-day kindergarten.”
Peoria Unified voters rejected a $189 million bond in 2018 and a $198 bond in 2016 to fund technology, school improvements and new schools, among others. With those fails, the district is nearing a funding gap from a voter approved 2012 bond that will be fully expended over the next two fiscal years.
The Citizens’ Bond and Override Advisory Committee recommended the override proposal to the governing board, calling for an election Nov. 5.
The district must notify the Maricopa County elections department of their intention to place the measure on the ballot, June 8. The deadline for the ballot language is Aug. 9.
Committee member Armando Macias has three grown adults who have gone through the PUSD system and said voting for the override is about securing the future and the responsible thing to do.
“My mom and dad are 88 years old. My dad was the sole provider for my family growing up, and to this day I have never heard him say anything about having to pay taxes to pay for the education of our future. So I understand your concerns, because I am concerned about them. But at the same time, when we talk about stewardship, we need to talk about it as it relates to us as individuals. We need to make sure we are taking care of the future by being good stewards ourselves,” he said. “I will continue to pay taxes even though my children are done with their education. It is our responsibility to make sure we provide opportunities for the children we have been entrusted to educate.”
Exempt from taxes
Ryan Boyd, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Assessor’s Office, said Arizona has two types of property tax — primary property tax and secondary property tax. He said the former is used for typical maintenance and operations expenses in public education while the latter is often voter approved projects like bonds.
Most residents of Sun City and Sun City West are exempt from secondary property taxes on local schools as a result of numerous school-tax levies defeated by a large senior citizen voting bloc decades ago, ending in voting exemptions, either through de-annexation or other means. These exemptions were implemented during a time when the senior citizen electorate dominated West Valley elections even more than they do today.
Corte Bella resident Douglas Edwards said the state constitution states all taxes should be uniform on the same class of property within the territorial limits of the authority levying the tax.
“My back yard backs up to the boundary of Sun City West. They live in a Maricopa County island, and so do I. What we are really looking for is fairness. If you are going to exempt one senior citizen community, then you need to exempt them all,” he said. “We are the same class of property as Sun City and Sun City West. And yet here we are paying taxes and they are not. That is our major concern. We are in Maricopa County and so are they. We are not in Peoria or Glendale or Youngtown.”
Philip Haldiman can be reached at 623-876-3697 or email@example.com.