Everyone not certain of override necessity

Tuesday, February 25, 2003
Anne Ryman

SCOTTSDALE - The possibility of larger class sizes and cuts to music and physical education is not enough to persuade Ray Currens to vote for the upcoming budget override in the Scottsdale Unified School District.

The retired Motorola engineer plans to visit the polls March 11 and vote against the measure.

"I will be there with bells on," said Currens, who wants to see more cuts made in district administration.

Overrides allow school districts to exceed state-imposed spending limits by 10 percent. It would be worth an estimated $10 million to the Scottsdale school district.

Not everyone is convinced the override is essential, despite a high-profile campaign on the part of Scottsdale citizens to pass it. No organized effort has emerged to try to defeat the override, but supporters aren't taking it for granted that it will pass. They know there are people out there like Currens who are skeptical of the need for more money for schools.

In the 2001 override election, there was no organized opposition, and it failed by a wide margin. A controversial school construction bond was on the same ballot, which some believe doomed the override. This time the override is the only measure on the ballot.

The primary reason some people oppose the override is that it is paid for through property-tax increases.

School districts need voter approval to pass them.

Scottsdale's override is estimated to cost homeowners an extra $23 a year for every $200,000 in assessed value, bringing Scottsdale's total annual tax for overrides to $69. Homeowners with $200,000 homes are already paying $46 toward an override that Scottsdale has in place now. Because the current override was voted down in 2001, it is resulting in a three-year phase-out unless the March 11 ballot measure passes.

Businesses would shoulder more of the tax burden if the override passes because they are taxed at a higher rate than homes. A business valued at $1 million in Scottsdale would see its taxes jump $287 a year, bringing the annual total contribution to $855. It is money well spent, said Rick Kidder, director of public policy for the Scottsdale Area Chamber.

However, Scottsdale resident Dot Stadler said she is unwilling to part with more tax money.

Stadler, who was involved in an unsuccessful recall of three school board members in 1999, said the current shaky financial condition of the country makes it bad timing to ask people for more money.

Residents already pay lots of taxes toward education, she said, through their income and property taxes. Their property taxes also help support universities, community colleges and the East Valley Institute of Technology, a high school program for teens that is headquartered in Mesa and open to Scottsdale students.

The Arizona Tax Research Association, a group that monitors tax issues across the state, is not taking a position on the Scottsdale override. However, residents need to be aware of some aspects of school finance, Vice President Michael Hunter said.

The Scottsdale School District has three property tax levies that send money to the schools. These sources amount to $11.8 million total this year.

The first tax levy is desegregation funding, which is used by 19 school districts to pay for programs for students who speak little or no English. Scottsdale's desegregation budget this year is $6.2 million. Desegregation funding was frozen last year for two years at the current level, and a bill now making its way through the Legislature would do away with it. District officials have said the money is essential because of an increase in students who are learning English from 1,197 students in 1998 to 2,072 this year.

The second funding source is $4 million in an excess utility tax, which pays for unexpected utility costs above the budgeted amount. In 1984, when utility costs were rising at a rate that school districts could not manage, the Legislature let them levy local property taxes in excess of their normal budget growth. For example, if a district's overall budget grew 6 percent and its utilities costs 9 percent, the district could tax local homeowners and businesses for the 3 percent difference. Last year, excess utilities were capped at 2001-02 levels, and a bill in the Legislature aims to do away with excess utilities altogether. Critics of excess utility tax say school districts have no incentive to conserve energy because they can raise taxes to fund it.

The third tax source that doesn't require voter approval to increase is "adjacent ways," which pays for projects such as sidewalks, sewers and sidewalks near school property. Scottsdale's adjacent ways budget is $1.6 million this year.