Decision 2019: Prosperity of Scottsdale hangs in balance

Figurehead: Scottsdale Schools Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard is at the helm of the unified school district, where local voters will be asked to extend override district-wide appropriations. (File photo)

In a few months Scottsdale voters will begin receiving their 2019 ballot containing two initiatives that could shape the city for years to come.

On the Nov. 5 all-mail ballot will be three questions for a Scottsdale bond program, as well as an option for voters to renew a maintenance and operations budget override for the Scottsdale Unified School District.

The election could be landmark for the city, as failure of any or all of the initiatives could have implications to the day-to-day life of Scottsdale residents.

Effects of not passing a major bond election in about 20 years was witnessed in 2018, when Scottsdale’s 68th Street Bridge was partially closed due to unsafe conditions after funds for city infrastructure had been passed over in recent elections.

Scottsdale City Council earlier this spring, after many months of meetings, discussions and input gathering, unanimously decided to move forward with a bond proposal that put 58 projects into three questions. The are:

  • Question 1: Parks, recreation and senior services — 14 projects totaling $112.6 million;
  • Question 2: Community space and infrastructure — 20 projects totaling $112.3 million; and
  • Question 3: Public safety and technology — 24 projects totaling $94.1 million.

Likewise, the Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board in June unanimously voted to add the override question to the ballot. Voters residing within SUSD’s Scottsdale, Paradise Valley, Phoenix and Tempe boundaries will be asked whether they wish to continue the current 15% maintenance and operations override to the district’s revenue control limit, which was first approved in November 2014.

The current M&O override’s tax rate of $0.37 per $100,000 of assessed valuation would not change if the override is reauthorized. A vote to approve the M&O override would continue the current tax rate through June 30, 2025.

For the bond election, bonds can be issued in stages as existing bonds are paid off in order to keep the city’s secondary property taxes at or below current levels, city officials say.

According to the Maricopa County Assessor, the 2020 estimated median single-family home value in Scottsdale is $375,000. If all the bonds on the ballot are approved, the estimated property tax impact for that homeowner would be $107.89 per year ($8.99 per month).

Since the city’s bond program was announced, For The Best Scottsdale political action committee was formed and has persistently used local news media to keep the issue of the bond in local headlines.

The threat of a bond project not passing appears to be top of mind for some, after previous years saw little interest from residents in funding public projects.

Since 2010, bond elections have mostly failed in Scottsdale. Their last successful bond election was in 2000, where six of the nine questions passed.

In 2010, a single question for streets, transportation improvements and drainage facilities failed; while all four questions in 2013 failed as well. In 2015, two of six questions passed, funding street pavement replacement and capital funding going toward fire department needs.

The Scottsdale Unified School District also knows the repercussions of a ballot measure failing.

SUSD’s current M&O override, renewed in November 2014, will begin sunsetting if it fails to receive voter approval.

If the M&O override is not renewed, the school district would start to see a decrease in years 2020-21 and 2021-22. Prior to the 2014 M&O override, the call for a budget extension had not been met with voter approval, as two elections failed.

Maricopa County Records Office records show the override failed in 2012 and 2013:

  • 2012: 52.66% of ballots cast voted “no” to a budget increase; while 47.34% voted “yes”; and
  • 2013: 50.28% of ballots cast voted “no” to a budget increase; while 49.72% voted “yes.”

In 2014, the override passed with 55.46% of ballots cast.

When the override failed in 2012 and 2013, the school district cut programs and started holding only a half-day of school on Wednesdays.

Years later, the public relations machines of Scottsdale are in full swing to muster up support for the additional city and educational funds to ensure residents’ quality of life is not diminished.

While community leaders and figureheads appear gung-ho on the upcoming ballot initiatives, some Scottsdale residents are more reserved when considering giving the two public entities more funds derived from taxing mechanisms.

Politics of scale

Scottsdale-based Rose Moser Allyn Public Relations — one of the most prominent PR firms in Arizona — is managing the For The Best Scottsdale PAC public affairs.

President Jason Rose, whose office is in Old Town Scottsdale, says he cares about the upcoming bond issue because of the special quality the city carries.

Jason Rose

“If you don’t treat your car with a tune-up every now and then it starts faltering. And, that’s what can happen to communities too,” Mr. Rose explained. “Two decades is too long for infrastructure repairs and improvements. In just the past couple of years, Scottsdale has had to spend millions to fix a bridge at 68th Street and Indian School that caused traffic headaches for neighbors there for nearly a year and a half.”

Mr. Rose also points to the open space and bridges near Scottsdale’s Center for the Arts and City Hall, which have been closed for similar reasons.

“Lakes are leaking. Jails need to be expanded. And, now is the idea time to make capital investments with interest rates being so low and secondary property taxes, which finance bonds, declining,” Mr. Rose said.

“As a proud graduate of the Scottsdale school district too, first starting out at Supai and Paiute, there’s no doubt the teachers and programs in our public schools could use some assistance too.”

Mr. Rose says what’s great about both the city’s infrastructure plan and the school district’s override is that they “almost certainly” will not result in new tax burdens.

“There are different reasons why for both but that is what makes the timing and content of these measures attractive,” he said.

Listing some examples of Scottsdale’s 58 projects identified for the bond, Mr. Rose says while the merits of each project are different, he believes every resident will benefit from the package.

“Not everyone will agree on every project, but taken as a whole there can be no doubt the package will help Scottsdale now, and into the future, especially with an additional tax burden likely being moot, something that can’t be said of previous proposals,” he said.

Don Henninger, executive director of nonprofit organization Scottsdale Coalition for Today and Tomorrow — also known as SCOTT — says the bond and school district elections are totally separate issues, but both are important in their own rights.

Don Henninger

“The city needs the investment in its infrastructure and the school district needs the resources,” Mr. Henninger said. “Both are about the future and ensuring that we leave our city and our students positioned for success so they can build on the quality of life that previous generations have left for us.”

Also pointing out the city infrastructure that was put by the wayside for 20 years, Mr. Henninger says the signs of neglect are becoming visible.

“Simply put, residents need to invest in their city if they expect to sustain the quality of life that brought them here in the first place,” he said.

“The fact that we can make that investment and not see an increase in our taxes should make this a no-brainer. The biggest obstacle may be complacency and if there is ever a time for a wake-up call for the city’s future, it’s now.”

On the heels of the Governing Board’s 5-0 vote to call for the override election, it was announced that Scottsdale residents Melinda Gulick and Denny Brown will be co-chairing a Yes To Children campaign in support of the override.

Scottsdale Unified School District Governing Board Vice President Allyson Beckham. (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

What’s at stake?

The Scottsdale Unified School District’s M&O override renewal would authorize an estimated $21.4 million monetary influx, school officials say.

The current M&O override’s tax rate of $0.37 per $100,000 of assessed valuation would not change if the override is reauthorized. A vote to approve the M&O override would continue the current tax rate through June 30, 2025.

Extending the M&O override for five years would generate approximately $21.4 million that SUSD would use to:

  • Maintain current class size standards;
  • Maintain all-day kindergarten programming; and
  • Maintain current music, art, world languages, athletics and co-curricular activities.

Extending the current tax rate would also permit the district to continue its emphasis on technology for students and classrooms, professional learning opportunities for staff and continuing to provide teachers with competitive salaries.

If voters do not approve extending the current M&O override, SUSD will lose approximately $6.5 million per year for each of the override’s final three years, for a total of $19.5 million, until the additional funding completely phases out on June 30, 2023.

Governing Board Vice President Allyson Beckham says if the override renewal were to fail, the district would be in a tough position.

“We are dependent upon those funds to operate the district,” she said. “There’s a whole list of items the school district would have to find the funds to finance.”

Looking back to the failed overrides of 2012 and 2013, Ms. Beckham says she remembers how upset families were at the time.

“It was — as you will find out when you have kids and you’re working — it’s hard to schedule around half-days,” she said.

Ultimately, the Governing Board vice president says this override is necessary to help fund and support the students in the district.

“I believe in public schools, I believe that public schools can use additional funding and one of the ways in the state of Arizona we get additional funding is through our taxpayers and our community,” she said. “I also believe it’s up to the taxpayers to vote. I’ve always been for giving the taxpayers the opportunity to have an override or not.”

The Scottsdale city bond proposal worked its way through an extensive public and municipal process to garner input and support prior to the City Council calling for the election. Mayor Jim Lane says he thinks it’s the most extensive process he’s witnessed in the 11 years he’s been in office.

“They did an outstanding job,” Mr. Lane said of the bond subcommittee, comprised of three council members.

Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane (Independent Newsmedia/Arianna Grainey)

“They brought it to the council, which also lent their voice to it, added some additional outreach, educated as best as we possibly could. I would say that process brought us to solid ground, I believe in everyone’s eyes.”

Mr. Lane also re-iterated how the three bond questions will impact people across the city, explaining how the long term capital asset is paid over time with longterm debt.

“It’s the most democratic way for residents to consider what they tax themselves for,” Mr. lane said. “A bond funds something that lasts sometimes for 20 to 30 years, sometimes longer, before it needs a capital restructure. That’s an appropriate way to do it. It’s always a matter of recognizing the value and need.”

Mr. Lane says the public’s perception of recognizing the value and need of a project is one reason why it’s important to have residents weigh-in across all areas of the bond. If the bonds don’t pass, the local mayor says the city’s other options are not as attractive.

“If it doesn’t pass, what would be the outcome? Well No. 1, I certainly anticipate it passing, I think the public does too,” Mr. Lane said. “The ultimate survey is the one taken at the ballot box — and that kind of thing could happen — we would have to find other ways, some of them are not as attractive as far as I’m concerned. A permanent tax increase would be one way, and that tax never goes away even if you’ve completed the project.”

Editor’s Note: Don Henninger serves on the Independent Newsmedia Inc. USA Board of Directors.

Northeast Valley News Editor Melissa Rosequist can be e-mailed at mrosequist@newszap.com or can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/mrosequist_.

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