On Nov. 5, voters across the East Valley will vote on several items concerning additional city- and school-district funding that would add millions of dollars to continue funding education efforts or to continue city and school-district improvements.
This year’s election is highlighted by override and bond issues for city governments and school districts across the East Valley. Residents of Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Queen Creek will vote on overrides concerning the school districts that affect their communities for the second year in a row – all of the districts’ attempts failed last year.
If approved, residents of the respective municipalities will tax themselves based on property values that allow the school districts to overspend their maintenance and operations budget by the requested percent.
Overrides are often approved for a seven-year period and decreased by a third over the last two years.
Chandler voters face override requests from the Chandler Unified School District, the Kyrene School District and the Tempe Union High School District.
Chandler Unified is requesting a 15-percent override that would add an estimated $27 million to its coffers in a mail-in only election; Kyrene also seeks a 15-percent override to add $12.2 million to its budget; while Tempe Union is going for 10 percent and an additional $6.6 million.
Both Kyrene and Tempe Union also serve the City of Tempe.
Queen Creek residents will vote on an override for the Queen Creek Unified School District for 10 percent and an estimated $2.2 million a year.
In Gilbert, voters can opt to approve a 6.6 percent override for the Gilbert Unified School District that would add $11.6 million to its budget a year and a 10 percent override for the Higley Unified School District that would pad the district’s budget by $4.9 million. The latter district, which also serves Mesa, is requesting the approval of a $70.5 million bond to pay for anticipated construction upgrades and newer equipment in the future as well.
One of the driving forces for some districts is a concern about budget cuts that could come if the overrides aren’t passed by voters.
“A lot of people think a ‘yes’ vote means we’re going to raise taxes,” said Teddy Dumlao, Gilbert’s director of finance, in a previous interview with the Tribune. “But really we’re asking to simply maintain where we’re already at. Otherwise we’re going to have to cut.
“The other thing people often think is that the state’s basic funding formula is an adequacy formula. But the state has never said districts should be able to get by on that formula alone. That’s just what they’re going to give us and that’s why the override process exists.”
Several of the overrides have garnered support from community organizations and leaders like Mayors Gail Barney, John Lewis, Mark Mitchell and Scott Smith, as well as state Rep. Rich Crandall.
There has, however, been push back against the overrides at the Gilbert and Higley districts by some residents.
One vocal opponent of the Gilbert override, Jeff Smith, claims the district has already seen an increase in its budget in recent years, and says government organizations should live within their budget constraints.
“They want it, but I don’t think they’ve demonstrated a need for it,” he said, calling the argument in favor of the override “flimsy.”
One district that doesn’t have an override on the ballot is Mesa Unified, although the district had a $230 million bond proposal approved last year. City residents, however, will still vote on the Higley override and bond votes, as well as a $130 million bond item presented by the city.
The $130.8 million item voters will either approve or reject is split into projects tied to public safety upgrades and infrastructure improvement.
A third project for the Arizona Spring Training Experience, Museum and Community Center that would have added $17 million to the bond was removed prior to a vote by the Mesa City Council to place it on the ballot.
This will be the first bond vote related to public safety and infrastructure for Mesa residents since 2008, when voters approved a $170 million bond item.
Voters did approve a $70 million bond in 2012 for projects related to parks, open space, recreational and aquatics facility improvements.
The public safety portion of the bond items totals $51.7 million, and includes the purchase of a $3.1 million helicopter for the Mesa Police Department and a $16 million communications center for the Mesa Fire Department, among other projects.
City Manager Chris Brady said the fire department currently shares a facility and a power grid with the police department — they are also on the same floor of the building — and he said the current circumstance does have benefits in the form of increased communication between the two departments.
But the problem with the current situation, he said, is the ramifications of a worst-case scenario. A problem with the power grid, like an electric outage, puts a city with a population of approximately 450,000 people in a vulnerable situation, he said.
“It allows us to know we have a backup plan,” he said.
Other public safety projects the bond would fund include a replacement for fire station 203 located along W. University Drive, a new evidence freezer — the city estimates the current one will run out of space in 2015 — and an improvement to the police department’s holding facility, among other projects.
The rest of the $79.1 million item would go toward improvements to the city’s infrastructure in the downtown area and in locations near the Fiesta Mall and Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport.
To determine which streets and locations the city would revamp if voters approve the bond, Brady said staff has evaluated the streets to figure out which ones needed improvement the most. He also said the city would tailor the improvements to the needs of the specific streets.
One of the selling points Smith mentioned was the deferment of certain projects from the 2008 bond — fire station 203 being one of them — he said has saved the city approximately $200 million over the years.
Both Brady and Mayor Scott Smith also emphasized the city only picked projects considered essential that would keep the city’s budget lean.
“I don’t think there are any Christmas items on the list,” Smith said.
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