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City's hike of some Tucson Water rates raises tensions with Pima County

With a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Tucson City Council approved charging customers of Tucson Water higher rates if they’re in the service area beyond the city limits in the face of strong opposition by residents and officials of Pima County.

County officials said they may file a lawsuit to halt the increase in water rates for users outside municipal limits.

The friction over water has led to a renewal of a war of words, if not yet of attorneys, as elected officials in each camp air long-standing grievances. City Councilman Paul Cunningham called the county's stance "borderline criminal" and that it "doesn't hold water," while County Chair Sharon Bronson said the city was "greedy" and not living up to decades-old commitments.

City Ordinance 11846 will raise the price of monthly potable water service to customers in unincorporated Pima County, an area that includes the Catalina Foothills, Casas Adobes and the Drexel/Alvernon area, among others, by 10 percent compared to prices for Tucson residents, with escalating rates for higher levels of use.

Tucson Water will classify customers in the unincorporated areas in four tiers — with tier one having a water bill 10 percent more expensive than the city, tier two 20 percent more and tier three and four 30 and 40 percent more expensive, respectively. Tiers depend on what kind of unit is being served and how much water that customer uses.

For example, a residential block of single-family homes belongs in tier four if they use more than 30 centum cubic feet or ccf, which would be excessive according to the Environment Protection Agency, but tier two if they use a 8-15 ccf. A single family residential home, however, will stay in the tier one range. Tier one and tier two customers in the unincorporated areas will also see a surcharge in the summer months that is 10 and 20 percent more expensive than for city customers.

Leading up to the vote, Pima County officials made strong indications of their opposition to the change. In May, the Pima County Board of Supervisors, through the county administrator, asked the County Attorney’s Office to review the legal issues that both the county and its residents could take up in court to combat the city’s action.

That review found four possible violations by the city, including failure to properly notify the public about the increase, failure to supply a report or data supporting the increase, passing an unjust and unreasonable ordinance and violating the equal protection clause of the Arizona Constitution.

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Pima County Supervisor Rex Scott said that the memo listing these possible violations by the city can be taken up in court by either the county, which he said he and other supervisors considered likely to happen, or by residents of the county.

The city of Tucson held two public hearings, on June 8 and June 22, before voting on the matter. At both, residents from the county argued that rates should increase for city residents as well, that this policy is about control, not conservation, that the city needs to be more transparent and that this is taxation without representation, to name a few points.

“Tucson Water has clearly become a profiteering monopoly that deserves to see a class-action lawsuit,” said Martha Aguilar, a Catalina Foothills resident who spoke at the June 8 meeting. “This plan that seeks to take advantage of a group of people in order to make a profit by charging high prices for a commodity that we need as citizens here in Tucson, this is the very definition of profiteering.”

The city also held a survey, in which 82 percent of those who responded opposed the plan.

However, both city resident and City Council members argued that the ordinance would prevent urban sprawl, conserve their resources, encourage annexation, was indeed a fair and equitable policy and would help repay a water debt mostly accrued by use in the unincorporated areas.

Mayor Regina Romero and several Council members mentioned that even though this ordinance is partly meant to cover the cost of service of delivering water to unincorporated areas - though no analysis has been done leading up to the vote that gives an accurate estimate of that cost -  they were focused primarily on benefits like climate resiliency, fiscal responsibility and infrastructure investment.

"For so many reasons (we have to do this)," Romero said. "To be able to conserve and protect our water resources into the future but also for economic development reasons. We have to make sure that the decisions we're making right now are protecting residents not just five to 10 years from now but 50 years from now. Even though the motion has the cost-of-service analysis, this is much more based on the climate reality we live in and on the conservation that we have to take."

The mayor said that the city has to change the "course of business as usual,” a mindset that she said is outdated by the new challenges of climate change and the drought that Tucson and the region are in. 

“As mayor and Council we are stewards of our water resources, and much has changed since the 1970s," she said. "We are living in a megadrought, climate is changing, and it is affecting the frontline communities, which are seniors and children and low-income communities, those are the frontlines of climate change. So as the stewards of (our water), mayor and Council is responsible to make the best decisions available to be able to preserve the water resources, not just for now, but into the future."

Councilwoman Nikki Lee, of Ward 4, echoed those thoughts, saying “when trying to decide whether I’m making the right decision, I have to look five, 10, 15 years out and ask if it’s the right decision. Anything having to do with conservation is the right decision because it makes sure we’ll still have the resources we need in the future. A city without water doesn't exist.”

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Lee added that an economic benefit would come too, saying “this sends the right signal to the business community that we’re ready for sustainability, that we’ll still be around.”

Romero also listed places where water costs more  for customers outside municipal boundaries including Phoenix, Chandler, Flagstaff, Sedona and Yuma.

'Borderline criminal'.... 'Greedy'

Councilman Cunningham, Ward 2, said that for him, this policy question is about fairness. He said the county doesn't spend enough money within municipalities like the city of Tucson, considering how much money it receives from the state and how much money it collects in taxes.

"What the county does is borderline criminal," he said, referring to the disparity between how much the county collects from municipalities and how much they spend on them. "At some point, it's about standing up and saying this isn't fair. This is a policy decision for city residents so they have a little something extra. We're not just doing this to cover the cost of service. We're doing this for the city of Tucson and its residents who aren't getting what's fair from the county."

“There is no question of fairness,” Supervisor Bronson, chair of the Board of Supervisors, said a few days before the city voted on the issue. “Because what the city wants to do isn’t fair.”

Leading up to the vote, Bronson said that she can’t understand any reasoning by the city of Tucson for wanting to hike rates except “that they’re greedy” though she dialed back that comment to say instead that the city of Tucson didn’t want to take on their responsibility to be the regional water provider, which she said would be a violation of a 1979 intergovernmental agreement.

Bronson, whose district covers most of Pima County east of 1-19 and the Tucson Mountains, along with a stretch of the North Side of the city reaching to Swan Road, referred to a 1979 agreement between the city and county that was the result of a need to consolidate sewer management at the time.

According to an analysis on the city of Tucson’s proposed differential water rates by Pima County, the Environmental Protection Agency offered both governments tens of millions in federal grants to expand and upgrade their wastewater system to comply with the 1972 Clean Water Act.

However, the Metropolitan Utilities Management Agency, or MUM, had been struggling at that time to manage the city and county wastewater system leading up to the agreement because of complications from regulations, questions about equitable cost sharing and the changing ownership of facilities as the city boundaries evolved with annexations and incorporation.

MUM dissolved as a result of the 1979 agreement in which the county and city cosigned on a license that gave the county control of the sewer system, the rights to construct and maintain sewer systems that go through Tucson and reimbursement from the city for the cost of any relocation and adjustment to sewer or water systems.

Tucson had been established as the largest source of water flowing into that sewage system at the time by a study from the University of Arizona, so the city would be losing water they could reuse with the 1979 agreement. They were also the only major water provider in the county at the time and had been managing water in the Santa Cruz River Basin and adjacent basins, so recommendations to the county and city reasoned that Tucson should take control of 90 percent of that water after deductions taken for the Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act that provided for Native American tribes in the region. The county would be left with 10 percent of that water.

Cunningham said Bronson’s argument “doesn’t hold water,” but more importantly for him, he said, was that it overlooks the question of fairness as he sees the county as taking advantage of city residents.

“This is really about the county’s refusal to do the right thing for the city of Tucson,” Cunningham said during Tuesday's Council meeting.

He argued that the county had been burdening the city in multiple ways, including by using water in high amounts outside the city’s jurisdiction to regulate for conservation, using the city’s credit to backstop bonds, never using the money raised by those bonds to help the city, generating large water debts that the city would have to pay back and ignoring how city residents already pay more for water through taxes.

“We’re allowed to do this,” Cunningham said. “If the county wanted us to be the regional water provider, we would have elected a water board.”

Romero said before the vote on Tuesday that it’s important that the county and city continue to work together despite the disagreement they're in on this issue.

“We must continue work together,” she said. “Just like a family, we sometimes we agree, sometimes we don’t. But I know that this conversation has been happening for the last 40 years in a way."

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The City Council and members of the Board of Supervisors had planned to hold a joint meeting on June 11, in part to discuss the water service issue in public, but scheduling conflicts with some members of each body and slow communication meant that session was called off just days beforehand.

The city ordinance as Cunningham introduced it will take effect on December 1. The water rate change will not affect the Tohono O'odham Nation nor Pascua Yaqui tribe. The Council asked City Manager Michael Ortega to to look into doing a cost-of-service analysis.

Supervisors Bronson, Scott and Adelita Grijalva of District 5 have said that they expect the county to take legal action, with Bronson saying that as a Tucson Water customer, Pima County would have standing to file a lawsuit when the city attempts to charge a higher rate.

Bennito L. Kelty is TucsonSentinel.com’s IDEA reporter, focusing on Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access stories, and a Report for America corps member.

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have your say   

2 comments on this story

Jun 29, 2021, 5:24 pm
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Expect more people. We’re running out of water.

Jun 24, 2021, 9:41 pm
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I completed the Open Town Hall survey on 12 May of this year in response to the request for citizen input regarding the City Council proposal to institute differential water rates for county residents not residing in incorporated territory.

My wife and I have been voting and tax-paying residents of Pima County since 15 November 1995. By chance and definitely not by intent, the home we purchased lies on the east side of Houghton Road just north of Catalina Highway, perhaps a quarter mile outside the Tucson city limit.

For all the years we have called Tucson home, most of our commercial, medical, social, religious and political activities have taken place within the city limits.  This includes the vehicles we have purchased or leased at an appreciable sales tax increase over similar purchases had they been made in the county.

I will not call the proposed increase in county-dwellers’ water rates, whatever it may be, arbitrary and capricious.  I will say it appears premature and not adequately justified.  On behalf of one oh-so-close but not quite city household, I asked Mayor and Council to table the proposal and initiate serious conversations among all parties within and outside incorporated areas of Pima County.  I’ve received no indication that those of us who raised questions or outright opposition have been taken seriously.  Their action this Tuesday makes it seem likely that we were not.

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The Central Avra Valley Storage and Recovery Project (CAVSARP) in Avra Valley, Tucson