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Fantasy Ireland 

TUSD's "fantasy" tax increase will be all too real to small businesses.

Joel T. Ireland frequently reminds the world that he is the senior member of the Tucson Unified School District Board of Governors, yet downplays his influence.

But as he hits the halfway mark of the first year of his fourth term, Ireland is a pied piper on most issues, including TUSD's new budget. He led passage last week of a spending plan for the 63,000-student district that:

· Sheds some jobs but employs his son, who ended his studies at Cal-Berkeley.

· Bloats controversial desegregation spending by 15 percent to $62.4 million.

· Forces a big boost in property taxes for all businesses and renters while allowing Ireland, its chief backer, to enjoy a free pass as a homeowner.

"A good effective program for me will always outweigh the tax consideration," Ireland says.

One of those destined for increases is TUSD's alternative education department, an Ireland favorite that is run by his friend and political supporter Bob Mackay. In fact, Ireland said more of TUSD's desegregation fund should be put into alternative education because, he contends, most of those students are desegregation students. Ireland's son is listed as working at Project MORE in TUSD's alternative education division.

Aaron Ireland, who also once held a coveted student seat on the TUSD board, was hired on March 2, according to the TUSD public relations department. He is paid $9.23 an hour, or $19,198 a year, to be an "exceptional education instructional specialist."

Now 19, Aaron Ireland also was an "activity helper" for the vocational education department for four weeks in June 1999. He was paid $6.96 an hour in that job.

In a year in which Ireland, the school board member, laments job cuts he defends his son's employment.

"My son is an outstanding mathematics scholar. He got an 800 in math on the SAT, which is perfect. He's doing a great job," Ireland said.

Ireland said his friendship with Mackay, with whom he enjoyed a beer after the board's budget vote, had nothing to do with his son's hiring. And he insists his son does not work for Mackay, who gave Ireland a $50 campaign contribution last year after Ireland's uncontested election was over, according to his campaign finance report.

Ireland's brother served as an assistant principal at Catalina High School several years after Joel Ireland angrily tried to close that school. He isn't alone in resisting calls for tough nepotism rules. Board member Mary Belle McCorkle, a former TUSD bureaucrat, cast the necessary vote to install her daughter as principal at Dietz Elementary School.

Ireland signed a conflict of interest statement on April 25, nearly eight weeks after Aaron Ireland landed his TUSD job.


WITH LITTLE EFFORT last week, Ireland led the move to jack up taxes. McCorkle, now in her third term, provided the second to his motion. Board president Carolyn Kemmeries, a former TUSD principal, and first-year member Judy Burns joined.

It's not as if taxpayers in TUSD have not been generous. They have watched TUSD increase spending in the last 12 years by 61 percent to $360 million. And TUSD voters overwhelmingly approved the state measure last November to increase the state sales tax by .6 percent to raise money for, among other things, teacher pay raises.

An Episcopal priest turned insurance lawyer, Ireland, 47, justified the increase in the desegregation budget by shouting from his mid-dais seat that he would not tell children they had to "give back [their] crayons" just to be able to "vote against a fantasy tax increase." According to Ireland's theory, Tucsonans won't be paying the extra tax bill; it will be covered by the state.

In an interview, TUSD's senior board member could not state TUSD's current total tax rate ($9.04 per $100 of assessed value), the rate his budget plan will include ($9.58) or the rate in his first term ($6.55). He also could not state the increase in average tax bills since he took office (46 percent, from $655 to $958)

Now he and his budget supporters are manipulating a state law that was enacted by voters in an amendment to the Arizona Constitution 20 years ago, after California's tax revolt. It provides a cap on the amount of taxes homeowners pay and calls for the rest of the money to come from the state general fund. Homeowners have 107,133 of the 157,000 taxed properties within TUSD.

If you think taxes and tax rates are confusing, take comfort. Ireland, his majority, and TUSD finance managers do not know what they are, how they are calculated, how they apply to different types of property or, disturbingly, how much money they will generate, even though property taxes, at $175 million, can make up well more than half of TUSD's spending.

Property taxes are split. Primary taxes are used for daily operations; secondary taxes go for bond repayment. For homeowners, the combined primary tax rates for the county, city, school and state cannot exceed $10 per $100 assessed value. Because of high-tax TUSD and high-tax Pima County, homeowners have long been above that cap.

Here's how it works: Homeowners pay only 65 percent--another break in state law--of school district tax rates. At $7.70 per $100 for TUSD, the net rate is $5.05. Add to that $4.07 for Pima County, $1.14 for Pima Community College, 53 cents for state education assistance and 14 cents for the city, and the rate is $10.89. Even TUSD homes outside the city are above the cap.


WE'LL USE IRELAND'S WEST University home at 532 E. First St. for the example. It is on the tax rolls for $99,685. His primary tax rate is capped at $10, so the bill will be $990. The remaining $88, from the remaining 89 cents per $100, will come out of the state general fund, rather than Ireland's pocket.

But business won't enjoy Ireland's tax "fantasy," not even the Marriott, where he and his pals enjoyed beer after he rammed through the TUSD budget, a final version of which will be approved July 10.

The Marriott, on the tax rolls for $17.5 million, has a property tax bill of $696,882, including $271,781 to TUSD. The "fantasy" increase Ireland talks about will mean $23,625 more.

Records from Pima County Assessor's and Treasurer's offices show the types of hits packed into the tax increase Ireland calls "fantasy."

South of Ireland's alma mater, Rincon High School, is the locally owned Viscount Suite Hotel, 4855 E. Broadway Blvd. Joe Cesare and his hotel partners will pay $403,886 in property taxes, including $203,000 to TUSD. Ireland's "fantasy" increase will mean $13,135 in new taxes for TUSD from the Viscount.

Borrowing from Ireland's theatrical pitch, that's 3,291 boxes of 64 Crayolas at the high retail rate of $3.99 at Walgreens, or 4,392 boxes of 64 crayons from a discount brand. Joe Cesare, under Ireland's budget plan, will provide up to 281,088 crayons.

Time Market, a nifty lunch spot in Ireland's neighborhood at 444 E. University Blvd., now pays $1,417 in TUSD taxes and will tick off another $98.90 under the new Ireland budget plan.

Mama Louisa's, a venerable Italian restaurant just north of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, pays total property taxes of $4,329, including $2,182 to TUSD. Under Ireland's plan, Mama Louisa's gentlemanly owner Joseph Elefante will fork over another $174.15.

The DiChristofano family runs Broadway Volvo with uncommon grace across the street from TUSD. The business' property taxes jumped 16.6 percent in a year and now will climb another $500 to pay the Ireland's "fantasy tax."

At ACE Hardware, 2221 N. Country Club Road, property taxes have risen from $13,906 in 1998 to $17,083, nearly 23 percent. TUSD's cut for daily operations is $6,771. The store, in the reality of Ireland's "fantasy tax increase," will get nailed for $555 more.

The Arizona Daily Star, which regularly criticizes those it believes escape their fair share of tax, is in a building with the Tucson Citizen and the company the two papers own, Tucson Newspapers Inc. Though it tried to cut its taxes through value appeals by 18 percent, the three-way company at South Park Avenue and East Irvington Road is on the tax rolls for $6.7 million and is just inside TUSD's boundary. What Ireland calls a "fantasy tax increase" will cost the newspapers another $10,000.


AS IRELAND SNICKERED about higher taxes, Kemmeries, who is out of town and unavailable for comment, and McCorkle, who participated in the meeting via telephone, expressed relief first in TUSD's staff's incorrect notion that businesses here will not suffer the full amount of the tax rate increase. They also expressed comfort that the state general fund will cover a big portion of the tax increase.

That is not comforting to Maricopa County politicians, who control the Legislature. Critics warn that people from Sun City to Mesa do not enjoy paying millions of dollars for TUSD's chronic high spending, which arises from its deliberate failure to move faster than Alabama in desegregation.

Six years ago, the Pima County Board of Supervisors explored shifting some secondary rate taxes--for bonds, flood control and libraries--to the primary rate to also take advantage of the state law limiting residential property taxes. George Cunningham, then a Democratic state representative from central Tucson who also had served as Gov. Rose Mofford's chief of staff, warned that the Maricopa County-dominated legislature would quickly retaliate.

The threat evolved into a bill two years ago when County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry laughed away the county's big tax increase as one that would be picked up by the state. Maricopa County's Sen. Lori Daniels, an East Valley Republican, quickly whipped up a bill to strip from the county's share of state sales taxes the millions of dollars the state general fund would have to provide the county because of high property taxes.

"It's not just talk," says Martin Willett, a deputy county administrator who has long directed the county's legislative activities.

Ireland sees only growth in the desegregation budget. More money for salaries. More money for building maintenance. More money for employee health insurance. That means more money for TUSD's key legal advisers from DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy, who say they check if each item qualifies.

Close review by the board was blocked when Ireland, Kemmeries and McCorkle voted to shield the desegregation budget from a separate vote. Ireland justified his move on advice from TUSD's in-house counsel, Jane Butler, who said the budget had to be voted on in total.

That would be news to most other governments that not only approve line items but departments or funds, such as the county's Waste Water Management or, at the city, Tucson Water.

Ireland lectured colleagues to "be very careful" going against the advice of their lawyer, and said they must take "security" and "repose" in their lawyer's advice.

Did he take similar "repose" in advice from lawyer Ronna Fickbohm, whose preposterous report on former Tucson High School Principal Cecilia Mendoza was a reason for TUSD's recent $120,000 settlement with Mendoza?

Said Ireland: "I have no comment."

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