"The county attorneys in three different counties, as well as a Flagstaff law firm, have been looking at this issue, and they’ve all come to different conclusions," said Deputy County Attorney Lance Payette regarding a request by the Northeastern Arizona Technological Institute of Vocational Education (NATIVE) to raise its tax levy from five cents to $1.25 per $100 of assessed valuation in the Kayenta and Piñon school districts.
The Navajo County Board of Supervisors met in special session Monday to consider the request. On Aug. 15, the board set the levy at five cents. At the time, Superintendent of Schools, Alicia "A.J." Brown advised the board that NATIVE had requested $1.25, but after speaking with the county attorney, finance director and the Apache County superintendent of schools about the state statute that allows joint technological education school districts (JTEDs) to levy taxes, she recommended the levy be set at five cents.
Arizona law allows traditional school districts to levy certain taxes, and in order to increase those taxes, they must gain voter approval. Attorneys for NATIVE argued that the statute pertaining to JTEDs allows those districts to increase taxes without voter approval.
Michael Hunter of the Arizona Tax Research Association (ATRA), a tax watchdog group, argued that the statute in question does not give JTEDs the authority to levy more than five cents. Payette explained to the board that the language of the statute is unclear, and that the state attorney general’s office had been asked to issue an opinion on the matter, but had not yet done so. He told the board that after lengthy review and discussions, he determined that regardless of whether the levy is allowed by law, the board’s role in the matter is purely ministerial.
"Whether it is capped at five cents is the legal issue to be decided," Payette said. "That’s the legal issue we don’t think you need to get into. We are confident that your role is a ministerial one."
He recommended that the board rescind the five-cent levy and approve the $1.25 levy.
Payette also noted that regardless of what action the board took, it was likely to result in a lawsuit.
"This is precedent setting. It’s different than what’s been done before, and is probably going to result in a lawsuit no matter what action you take," he explained. "But this is a ministerial function by the board to approve. If it leads to a lawsuit, that’s for them (NATIVE officials) to defend."
The board unanimously agreed to rescind the five-cent levy and approve the $1.25 tax levy.