Valley homeowners are paying more property taxes for the same house in Maricopa County than they did four years ago, and neither candidate for supervisor in the East Valley's District 1 will promise to reverse that trend.
Supervisor Fulton Brock, a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Ed Hermes, both refused to say they would reduce the county's rising property taxes.
The race for District 1, which covers Tempe and parts of Phoenix, Scottsdale, Mesa and Chandler, has emerged as one of the most competitive for a county office.
The two contenders offer vastly different visions of the county and strongly disagree on issues such as the role of the board in watching over certain agencies run by other elected officials.
But when it comes to the board's primary responsibility - setting tax rates and raising money for county agencies - Brock and Hermes said it would be irresponsible to commit to cutting or freezing property taxes.
Property taxes are based on the value of houses and the overall tax rate. The worth of a home is set by the county assessor. And the rate is set by the county board of supervisors. Together the two entities create the final tax bill.
Still, Brock, who was elected in 1996, said the amount of money property owners pay is largely out of the board's control.
The assessor increased the valuations on homes by 10 percent in each on the past four years, resulting in higher tax bills even though the board lowered the rates, according to county records.
"That's out of our control," Brock said. "We have a long record of lowering rates, but we can't control how much their houses are being valued at. That's the assessor, and he makes me madder than a hornet sometimes."
Hermes, a 24-year-old making his first bid for elected office, said he is wary of committing to tax cuts in the current economic climate in which the county faces deep budget deficits. He, like his opponent, vowed to look at other areas to trim costs.
"As a candidate, I never want to make blanket promises when I don't know what the next four to eight years will look like," Hermes said. "I can tell you I have no plans to raise taxes."
Even though Brock touts the board's record of lowering rates, some critics still hold the supervisors accountable for tax increases because they didn't lower rates enough to offset increases in property values.
Tom Jenney, executive director of the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers, said at the very least the board should have lowered rates enough to keep increases in line with inflation. Taxes have increased 6 percent in each of the past four years, according to county records, nearly double the average inflation rate of Arizona.
"This has been unacceptable," Jenny said. "We don't think they've lowered the rate enough. We think taxes have been too steep for how our economy is doing."
On the campaign trail, Hermes has accused Brock of taking a lazy approach when it comes to oversight of county agencies - most specifically the sheriff's office. Hermes said he wants to institute more audits of the county to find out where it can save money. He added that he wants a comprehensive review of the sheriff's operations and finances.
To cut overall costs, Hermes said, the county must scale back its use of outside lawyers, as well as its practice of renting private office space to house its operations.
Hermes did not single out Sheriff Joe Arpaio or County Attorney Andrew Thomas. But critics have criticized both for renting expensive office space and running up large bills for outside legal advice.
"We're going though tough financial times, and we need to take a holistic approach to saving money," Hermes said last week at his campaign headquarters in west Chandler.
Hermes would like to shake up the county meeting schedule to give the public grater opportunity to attend. Currently, the board meets on Monday mornings, a time Hermes said is nearly impossible for average citizens to attend. He is proposing to move the meetings to 7 p.m. to make them easier to attend. He would also like to hold half of the board's meetings at various city halls across the county to give residents better access to the board.
"This would get us out into the community we serve," he said.
Brock contends that the board has done a good job overseeing Arpaio's office. Over the years, Brock said the sheriff's office has been audited dozens of times, adding that "the sheriff's office has been overaudited."
"I think when you look at it, the sheriff's office is the most audited agency in the county," he said. "This is a political buzzword my opponent has invented this year. This a political concern that has no merit."
As most incumbents do, Brock is running on what he calls a record of accomplishment. Despite the rise in property tax bills, Brock still brags that he has at least tried to cut taxes during his 12 years on the board. He also touted a high bond rating for the county, which is free of debt.
Brock said he is proud of numerous programs he and the board have instituted over the years, such as the county's anti-drug efforts, juvenile and teen court programs that have won national awards, and efforts to help the county's homeless population get off the streets.
"I also think we were one of the first counties in the country to begin using biodiesel fuel," he said. "And that has helped us become more environmentally friendly. These are all things I am very proud of."
The county, like the state and municipalities throughout Arizona, is facing budget deficits that could prompt major cutbacks.
The county is running a deficit estimated at $20 million in the current fiscal year. The board has already cut $42 million from the current year's $2.3 billion budget. Yet neither candidate in the District 1 race was willing to say he would support layoffs or across-the-board cuts in agency spending. They did say they would look for ways to save money by making sure departments run more efficiently.
The race between Brock and Hermes has emerged as a key battleground for Democrats in their quest have more say at the county level, something they've lacked for years.
The five-member board, consisting of four Republicans and one Democrat, oversees a $2.3 billion budget and more than 50 county departments and agencies.
Democratic leaders are optimistic that the political ratio and membership of the board will change this year.
Most Republicans still see the region as a safe district because of it's history and voter registration numbers that heavily favor the GOP. But Democrats think voters are frustrated enough with Republicans on the national level that GOP candidates also will pay the price in local races.
"There is growing evidence of a widespread Republican meltdown," said Bob Grossfeld, a longtime Democratic strategist. "It's not just on the national level. Its further down the ballot as well."
Hermes, who worked for the state agricultural department before campaigning for a spot on the Board of Supervisors, has shown he can out-raise his opponent.
As of August, Hermes has raised more than $90,000 and said he is now over the $100,000 threshold in campaign contributions. By contrast, Brock reported about $122,000 in contributions, but half of that was carried over from previous campaigns.