District seeks more funds

The Arizona Republic
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Alex Bloom

Maricopa Community Colleges will consider hiking district property taxes next month, but the measure could face resistance at a time when most county residents are feeling economic pain.

Maricopa County Community College District administrators have asked the governing board for a 2 percent increase in property-tax revenues, or $7.5 million, to bring total revenues to about $359 million.

If approved, the measure would raise primary property taxes in the countywide college district by $1.52 on a $100,000 home. The district governing board will meet June 9 to discuss and possibly take action on the proposal. The board has the authority to raise property-tax revenues by a maximum of 2 percent, giving it latitude to increase the flow of money to fund its budget by that amount. The Maricopa County Assessor's Office then sets property-tax rates accordingly to raise the desired revenue amount.

The district board has raised its revenue amount every year for the past decade.

Maricopa Community Colleges seeks the increase because enrollment is expected to balloon during the economic recession, according to Debbie Thompson, vice chancellor of business services.

Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler-Gilbert colleges are already reporting double-digit percentage increases in fall enrollment compared with last year.

"We typically see people returning to college, particularly community college, so they can get retrained and reskilled," Thompson said.

The colleges also need money to operate newly constructed buildings and classrooms, paid for by a $951.4 million bond approved by voters in 2004.

"Those facilities are going to help us meet the growth of today and the growth for the next 5 to 10 years," Thompson said.

However, the five-member district governing board voted 4-1 against a tuition increase in March, and board president Colleen Clark does not support a property-tax increase.

"Government often tries to solve complex financial enigmas with higher tax burdens for citizens. In this case, Maricopa County property owners," Clark said in an e-mail. "I cannot vote for the levy increase because citizens are the better, and rightful, judge for where they want their money to go."

Justin Olson, an analyst at the Arizona Tax Research Association, criticized the increased levy. Foreclosures, depressed home values and fewer new homes suggest that property-tax increases will hit harder than in previous years.

"We're hopeful that all taxing districts would go to great lengths to keep taxes from increasing, especially in this current environment," Olson said. ATRA analysts will meet with district officials next week to discuss the increase.

But Jim Simpson, president of the Maricopa County Community Colleges Faculty Association, said the bump up is necessary to deal with the expected rise in enrollment. Simpson spoke with Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler-Gilbert colleges and said fall enrollment figures were up by double-digit percentages, unlike previous years when audits showed full-time student counts were going down.

"What (ATRA is) relying on is what's happened in the past, not what's going to happen in the future," Simpson said.

Without the full increase, the district will not have the funds to handle enrollment increases over the next few years and will have to cap enrollment and cut programs and student services, said Simpson, an accountant and business professor at Scottsdale Community College.

The district could raise tuition prices, he noted, but that would hurt students.

"Do we spread the pain amongst 110,000 (full-time) students, or do we spread the pain among three million taxpayers?" Simpson asked.

Property-tax revenue accounts for about 58 percent of the district's operating budget, which was $600 million for 2008-09. The district cut $15 million from the budget in December, asking each campus to slice operating costs by 2 percent. Despite those cuts, the budget is expected to increase to $642 million next year to operate the ten college campuses that are used by roughly 260,000 full- and part-time students.