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Pima, Tucson tensions surface as county plans response to city's water rate hike

The relationship between the city of Tucson and Pima County has moved towards an “all-time low,” officials of both governments said, with the issue of differential water rates likely to bring the conflict into court.

An update about the city's review of the cost of providing water to customers outside the city limits, including those in the unincorporated areas of the county, was discussed by the Pima County Board of Supervisors at a meeting Tuesday.

County Chair Sharon Bronson said the analysis prepared by the city is “seriously flawed.”

Supervisor Steve Christy, whose district includes Tanque Verde, Corona de Tucson and Green Valley, put the item on the meeting’s agenda and called it the “first salvo from the bow,” saying that the rate hike is part of a larger regional power grab by the city.

Christy, the lone Republican on the county board, said the city and county are at odds on multiple issues including annexation of areas into the city, contributions to the Sun Corridor economic development organization, and the city’s role within the Regional Transportation Authority and Pima Association of Governments.

“They tout themselves, the city does, as the heart and soul of Pima County,” Christy said. “All in all, with the Pima County administration, the departments, the deputy administrators, I’d say that the relationship is probably at an all-time low.”

The county sent a letter to Tucson Mayor Regina Romero asking her office and the City Council to reconsider the rate hike but never received a response. Bronson said this showed that the city doesn’t want to collaborate with the rest of the region.

“We’re trying to reach out and have a rational conversation,” Bronson said. “We’re working well with our other regional partners whether that’s the town of Sahuarita, Oro Valley, Marana, South Tucson, Pascua Yaqui Nation and the Tohono O’odham Nation. We’re in dialogue with them constantly, but there is no dialogue with the city of Tucson.”

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The rate hike for Tucson Water customers outside of the city, adopted by the Council in late June, is expected to cost county government around $300,000, according to a memo from County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. It will increase water bills for individual homes by as much as 10 to 40 percent, based on their water use. Most individual homes would see a 10 percent increase.

Romero and City Council members said they supported the ordinance for “climate resiliency” and “economic development reasons.” They also agreed to conduct a cost of service analysis to identify how much it costs Tucson Water to deliver water to unincorporated areas. The city owns and operates the municipal water utility, which serves customers throughout the region, including the Catalina Foothills, Casas Adobes and the Drexel/Alvernon area, among others.

Councilman Paul Cunningham, who led the passage of the water rate hike, said he doesn’t see the need to keep correspondence up on the issue if the county is only expecting them to change their position.

“I made my motion, we already passed it, we’re moving on with what we’re trying to do, we’re adhering with the cost of service analysis,” he said. “I think Pima County should be on our side... I hope the county reconsiders.”

Cunningham said he’s also not worried about legal action from the county. He said that he’d prefer if the supervisors and Huckelberry waited until after the cost of service analysis is published before they start “throwing haymakers.”

The county will release a memo before the end of this week with their findings about the city’s cost of service analysis, Huckleberry said, but county officials have already indicated that they find it “problematic.”

Cunningham said that the county has been trying to “move the goalposts” with their memos and that they’re not “based in reality.”

Earlier this summer, the East Side Democratic councilman said that "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."

The rate hike is set to take effect on Dec. 1.

Bronson said in June, when the City Council voted to approve the hike, that the city is not fulfilling its responsibility to be the regional water provider, which she said would be a violation of a 1979 intergovernmental agreement.

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

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Sep 22, 2021, 7:52 pm
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I’d like to suggest to the 12 principal actors in the melodrama that they clear their calendars and go off for a weekend together.  The site chosen should be reasonably comfortable but hardly luxurious.  They should bring with them photos or other memos of kids or grandkids and favorite pets and come prepared to share stories featuring those people and pets. They must leave behind all staff and files.  Their conversation should focus on their being neighbors who want only good things for their common home which is the County of Pima in the State of Arizona.  I would further suggest that all pledge to work to make all county and municipal elections in Pima County non-partisan.  Finally each and every one should pledge to make their current term their final one, to not seek re-election.  Then let them go back home and drop the water rate changes until the County has a brand new Board and the City of Tucson has new Mayor and Council.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy (center in this file photo) brought the issue of water rate hikes up at Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting, saying it's part of larger assault by the city against the county. Other supervisors agree and have complained about the city's actions regard other issues.

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