By Philip Haldiman, Independent Newspapers
The message Peoria voters took to the ballot box in this general election was clear — no tax increases.
Residents defeated two ballot measures that would have hit them in the pocketbook: a property tax increase from a bond proposed to fund Peoria Unified School District and a sales tax to fund amenities largely in the northern part of the city.
But some officials who fought for these measures say the defeats will set the city back.
Proposition 400, which would increase the city’s sales tax 0.4 percent, was denied by nearly 14 percent of the voters.
The PUSD bond was denied by nearly 19 percent.
Both numbers are according to unofficial results from the Maricopa County Elections Department.
PUSD’s $198 million bond was to fund the future needs of students that include building two new schools, improvements to existing campuses and transportation as well as new technology. The bond would have been paid off by an annual increase in property taxes, $102.48 on a $138,000 home.
Officials said the defeat will greatly affect the district, limiting funds at a time when some schools are reaching student capacity.
The Governing Board recently approved a committee that will review the current boundaries of two schools projected to reach capacity by the end of this school year — Liberty High School, 9621 W. Speckled Gecko Drive, and Sunset Heights Elementary School, 9687 W. Adam Ave.
School Board member Kathy Knecht said the new schools proposed as part of the bond would have addressed this issue.
She said the election is a major blow and the district will need to start from scratch, figuring out where to get the money to fix aging buildings in need of maintenance and repairs, while dealing with future student growth.
In the short term, the district will need to look at overcrowding without the benefit of new schools, but in the long term, this will have a major effect on education in Peoria and the Northwest Valley, Ms. Knecht said.
“This is a major setback. Even if it did pass you can’t wave a magic wand and a school pops up. It takes years to build a school. So, other schools will now have to do without some of the upgrades that were planned,” she said. “In the event of a major repair, we will have to find money elsewhere. But this runs the risk of hurting programs and dipping into the maintenance and operations budget, and we don’t want to do that because that could affect our hard-working staff members.”
Governing Board President Matthew Bullock, who did not run for re-election, said the district is still playing catch-up from a 2012 bond that covered only a portion of more than $300 million in district-wide deferred maintenance.
Mr. Bullock said this year’s bond would have covered some of that deferred maintenance, and now with no new schools to accommodate growth in the north, parents will have to deal with the stark reality of busing students out of their neighborhood due to overcrowded campuses.
“If you live at Vistancia, you may need to be bused to Centennial High School. I know this will cause quite a bit of pain, but when you can’t put kids in one place, you have to take them somewhere else,” he said. “The only other option would be to have staggered classes, like they do in big cities like Los Angles and New York.”
Proposition 400 was proposed to fund amenities in the city such as public safety, open space, recreation and other quality-of-life enhancements for about $146 million, through a sales tax increase equaling two cents on a $5 purchase. Peoria has a 1.8 percent sales tax, compared with 2.2 percent in Surprise and 2.9 percent in Glendale.
In the month leading up to the election, the fight over the proposed sales tax heated up when opponents of the proposition, District 21 state lawmakers Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, and Rep. Tony Rivero, R-Peoria, created a political committee to fight it, “PAC No Forever Tax, No on Proposition 400.”
They said the tax hike only benefited residents in the northern part of town and opposed the tax’s lack of a sunset clause.
The group then filed a complaint claiming Peoria officials used taxpayer dollars to influence its outcome.
Ms. Lesko said residents are tired of being over-taxed, especially if a tax measure isn’t going to benefit them, like residents living in the southern part of the city. The many tax measures on the ballot weighed heavy on voters, she said.
“The bottom line is that people have had enough with local government asking for more money,” she said. “They want the government to live within its means.”
But Mayor Cathy Carlat said there was great value in the amenities that would have come from the sales tax increase.
The Quality of Life Citizens’ Committee, made up of 21 residents, formulated the items on the proposition, and the Council unanimously approved the measure for the ballot July 5.
Ms. Carlat said the members of that committee, who reside throughout the city, worked hard at assessing Peoria’s needs and the desires of the residents.
It was a long and open process, and people who never got involved with the process came forward after the fact with their own agenda, she said, referring to Ms. Lesko and Mr. Rivero.
“Peoria is one city from the northern most point to the southern most border,” Ms. Carlat said. “When we raise the standard of living and bring in quality amenities, every address benefits.”
If approved, the tax would lacked a sunset, which Mr. Rivero said, was a turn-off. Mr. Rivero sat on the Peoria City Council, representing the Acacia District, before moving into his state seat.
Moving forward, Mr. Rivero said the city should look at the issue comprehensively and figure out how amenities can be funded internally.
“This is a lot of money,” he said. “The city should take the time to figure out what is important to all residents, from all different backgrounds, and then figure out how to pay for it. But taxes shouldn’t be the first option.”