Administrators at Central Arizona College in Pinal County are asking voters to finance their vision of thriving campuses in Apache Junction, the Johnson Ranch area, Maricopa and other fast-growing communities that they say lack adequate facilities for higher education.
The community college will hold a special election May 17 for a $435 million general obligation bond that would fund five regional campuses and seven smaller educational centers during a 20-year period.
However, a group of Gold Canyon residents says the college is asking too much, too soon, and would prefer to see the bond approval split into four phases.
If the bond is approved, the Johnson Ranch area southeast of Queen Creek in Pinal County could have a partially completed but functional campus as early as the 2007-08 academic year, said Dennis Jenkins, vice president for finance and community development for the college. Apache Junction would be able to replace and expand facilities located in a former mall, he said.
"Pinal County has grown tremendously in the past couple of years," Jenkins said. "We’re having to use high schools and other spaces for rent, so we have limited offerings in those areas."
The bond proposal is the result of an educational master plan study conducted in 2004 that includes demographic projections placing the county’s population at 1 million by 2025.
Jenkins said some county officials expect to reach that number even sooner, as early as 2018. A population increase of that magnitude would more than triple the college’s enrollment needs from the current 14,000 to about 53,000, and bonds are the only way to fund the required facilities.
But Doug DeHaan, leader of a nine-member opposition group that has been researching the issue, said the college’s expansion plan is divided into four distinct phases of five years each, so they should be approved by county residents one at a time.
DeHaan said the proposed bond would take 32 years to pay back and would
cost taxpayers about $759 million including interest.
"In Pinal County, that’s huge," he said. "What they’re saying is, ‘Trust me with three quarters of a billion dollars.’ "
DeHaan’s group has been distributing fliers with the headline, "Say no to a 32-year open checkbook."
Jenkins said DeHaan’s information about the term and payoff of the bonds is accurate, but those numbers represent the maximum amount the college can spend. He said planners held more than 100 public meetings in preparation for the upcoming election and determined a single bond issue would be the least expensive and fastest way to get Pinal County residents the educational facilities they need.
"All we’re asking voters for is the authority to sell those bonds if necessary," he said. "If the growth stops, or there’s a significant downturn in the economy, we would not do the later phases."
Jenkins said it will cost about $250,000 to hold the bond election, and that amount would quadruple under DeHaan’s plan. Phased approval also would slow down the implementation process and hinder long-term planning, he said.
He added that Central Arizona College hasn’t held a bond election since 1972, as opposed to the Maricopa Community College District, which holds such elections every five to 10 years.
Jenkins took issue with some of the opposition group’s figures, such as a total estimated tax of more than $9,000 over the term of the bond repayment for a home currently valued at $150,000.
He said the college estimates that figure would be closer to $2,584 — an average of $80.76 a year.
DeHaan admitted his figures don’t account for future growth and are based on the county’s current population of about 225,000 carrying the entire tax burden.
"The residents who move in are going to pay this tax as well," Jenkins said. "It’s not a free ride for anybody."
Still, DeHaan pointed out that Pinal County’s property taxes are among the highest in the state, and that many residents who are retired or on a fixed income already are suffering financial strain.
He said phased bond elections would ensure that voters not take on any additional taxes unless they agreed the previously approved money was well spent.
"The voters need some checks and balances," he said.