Craig and Carol Fornelius of Apache Junction say their 1,300-square-foot, two-story home nestled at the base of the Superstition Mountains is a long-held dream realized.
But just six years into their retirement, they may no longer be able to afford to stay there.
The Forneliuses plan to vote “no” Nov. 6 on a proposed renewal of a budget override in the Apache Junction Unified School District because they say they don’t have the money to continue paying for it.
They, and other residents in similar situations, say voting against the measure is one way to protest the continued increase in taxes they owe each year living in Pinal County.
“We have no control in this county over the way money is spent,” Craig Fornelius said. “This is a place where we can say stop the spending.”
The Forneliuses are on a fixed income, bringing home about $29,000 a year in Social Security benefits. This year, they owe $5,259 in property taxes, $620 of that to the Pinal County Junior College System and $1,955 to the Apache Junction Unified School District. On average, their tax bill goes up $500 a year, but last year’s increase was $666.
They’ve tried to sell half of their five acres to generate more money, but have been unable to unload it in the current real estate market. At 70, Fornelius said he’s considering getting a job.
“I’m not too proud,” he said. “I can go bag groceries at Bashas’. But for what?”
Carol Shepherd, spokeswoman for the Apache Junction school district, said the district’s override renewal failed at the polls last May because tax bills were fresh in voters’ minds.
“The override was a casualty,” she said. “People in Pinal County are upset. They’re upset about the rising assessed values of their homes, even the rising cost of gas and groceries. It’s difficult to have control over any of it, but they have control over this. The problem is, the kids are going to suffer as a result of everything else going on.”
If the renewal fails to pass again, district officials will have $950,000 less to work with as they balance next year’s budget. The district budget is roughly $33 million.
Shepherd said the district can continue going to voters every November to ask for the override, but it will be up to the school board to decide whether to do that. In the meantime, the district will need to make budget cuts somewhere.
“We will do what impacts kids the least,” she said. “We will look at the entire budget and see where we can shave a million dollars.”
The district first passed an override in 1999. The additional revenue levied has funded 22 positions, including music teachers, physical education teachers and custodians. Enrollment has remained steady within the district, Shepherd said, rising, on average, 2.5 percent to 3 percent a year.
Problems with the way the state funds education have gone unaddressed since the 1970s, she said, and an override is one way the community can choose to generate more funds for schools.
Apache Junction is one of seven East Valley school districts asking voters to renew budget overrides or pass new ones this fall.
Chuck Essigs, director of government relations for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, said nearly all of Arizona’s larger school districts have overrides in place and that the number up for renewal this year is just a normal part of the cycle. When overrides are passed, they stay in place for five years. Then districts must either renew or have the override money phased out of the budget over the next three years.
“There’s nothing unique about this year,” Essigs said. “Districts have become very dependent to operating with overrides. They are almost a needed part of the program.”
A group of mostly parents has formed a political action committee, Children First, to rally support for the Apache Junction renewal.
Suzanne Cranmer and husband Jeff have three children in Apache Junction schools and are part of the effort to distribute informational pamphlets and talk with community members about why they believe the renewal is needed.
“We all have higher taxes, but the override won’t raise taxes,” she said. “It’s unfortunate that a lot of people think that. Everyone needs to go to the county assessor’s office. Don’t take it out on the schools.”
Judy Richardson, of the financial services firm Stone and Youngberg, helps school districts with bond and override elections. She said the timing of override renewals this year is bad because people are seeing a rise in the taxes paid to schools and are wondering where that money is going.
“People assume that if the taxes go up it means the districts are spending more, but that’s not true,” she said. What’s actually happened is that the tax burden has shifted to homeowners and away from businesses because homes are valued much higher.
“A very unusual thing happened this year,” Richardson said. “Everybody’s home values went up a lot. It’s nobody’s fault, it’s just what the market did.”
The average homeowner saw their home’s full cash value increase by 50 percent in one year. At the same time, businesses were seeing an increase of about 5 percent to 6 percent.
Consequently, homeowners are paying a larger share of the school bill than in the past.
Fornelius said for now he has enough in his savings to pay the tax bill this year and next and after that, he’s not sure how he will make ends meet.
“I think we’re paying our share,” he said. “More than our share.”