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Pima County set to sue city of Tucson over water rates

Pima County is moving ahead with a lawsuit against Tucson over an increase in water rates for customers who live outside the city limits, following a 3-2 vote by the Board of Supervisors during a special meeting Wednesday.

In late June, the Tucson City Council voted unanimously in favor of raising Tucson Water rates for customers outside of the city limits. A war of words followed as Pima County supervisors called the move “greedy” as the feud brought relations between the city and the county to “all-time low.”

“Dating back to spring when this issue first came up, there has always been one overarching reason to oppose these higher water rates being imposed only on certain customers,” Supervisor Rex Scott said during the Wednesday morning meeting. “And that reason is it’s wrong. It’s wrong for people who have always been charged the same as other customers, some of them for decades.”

“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 this summer. “Because what the city wants to do isn’t fair.”

The county will retain an outside law firm to prepare a lawsuit, following the vote.

City officials have said it costs up to 26 percent more to provide water to some residents of unincorporated areas of the county.

Supervisors Matt Heinz and Adelita Grijalva voted against the motion Wednesday. Grijalva had said that she doesn’t support how the differential water rates were "imposed” by the city, but she believes legal precedents in the state give the city the right to do so. She also maintained that the county doesn’t need to seek outside legal counsel, which was part of the motion, because the county has attorneys in-house who can carry out the lawsuit, she said.

The argument from City Hall has been that differential water rates will lead to climate resiliency, fiscal responsibility and infrastructure investment in Tucson, as Mayor Regina Romero weighed prudence and conservation heavily before supporting the rate hike.

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"For so many reasons (we have to do this)," Romero said before passing the water rate hike in June. "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 vote Wednesday "lacks any legal basis, is purely symbolic, and sets a dangerous precedent," Romero said in an afternoon press release. "The courts have affirmed the legality of differential water rates, and water utilities throughout the state already have them in place."

The mayor thanked Grijalva and Heinz for "recognizing that this lawsuit is futile" with their "no" votes.

East Side Councilman Paul Cunningham, who took the lead in pushing the change, said in June that what isn’t right is how the county treats Tucson, their largest municipality, and said it’s “borderline criminal” how much the county takes advantage of them.

“This is really about the county’s refusal to do the right thing for the city of Tucson,” Cunningham said. "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."

Wednesday, Cunningham said the county's move to retain outside attorneys is "a waste of time and public resources."

"I was aware of this possibility from the outset," Cunningham told the Sentinel. "If the county wants to spend our tax dollars on a lawsuit without merit, that is their business. I hope legal fees are recoverable in this case. The county is a good partner most of the time. We disagree about this."

Other issues have also plagued the city-county relationship. Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican on the county board whose district covers Vail and the surrounding area, has called the rate hike “the first salvo from the bow” and part of a “three-pronged attack” alongside the city’s demands for greater representation on the Regional Transportation Authority and that the county repeal their PAYGO road repair program and the property taxes it created.

“They tout themselves, the city does, as the heart and soul of Pima County,” Christy said in late September. “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.”

Responding to the news of the county’s plan to sue over the water rates, Cunningham stood by his vote, saying, “We made a lawful and prudent vote, and I stand by it.”

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“I hope the legal system plays out and decides what’s fair,” he told TucsonSentinel.com on Wednesday.

Starting Dec. 1, City Ordinance 11846 will raise potable water rates for residents in areas like the Catalina Foothills, Casas Adobes and the Drexel/Alvernon area, among others, by 10 percent compared to prices for Tucson residents. It also establishes a tiered system that can raise rates by as much as 40 percent for customers who use more water.

The rate hike is expected to cost the county an additional $300,000, according to an estimate by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry in a June memo to the Board of Supervisors. This is because county park facilities will be charged at the 40 percent tier.

The City Attorney’s Office told the Mayor and Council that a cost-of-service study would be needed to legitimize the rate hike and to comply with state statute and city code. The city had not done a cost-of-service study before they passed the motion, however, which would have determined how much it costs Tucson Water to send potable water to its customers in unincorporated parts of Pima County.

After the city hired Raftelis Financial Consultants, Inc. and delivered a cost-of-service to the county in late August, the Huckelberry called the findings “problematic.” That study, he said in a memo, was used by the city to analyze factors that assisted the city in making their case and ignore factors that didn’t.

Supervisor Scott echoed Huckelberry’s argument before voting to move ahead with a lawsuit on Wednesday.

“It’s wrong for city officials to try to justify their decision after the fact because their lawyers told them they needed to cover their tracks by doing the cost-of-service study,” he said. “They compounded that wrong by using only data from that study that corroborated their actions while ignoring other data or failing to consider it.”

Scott said the city’s actions “demonstrates favoritism and strengthens arguments about inequity.”

Romero said that city residents are "subsidizing" water used by county residents, and that "it is incumbent upon our elected leaders to be strong stewards of our precious water resources, especially as we face the likelihood of a Tier 2 shortage at Lake Mead."

Cunningham said in late September that the county has been “moving the goalposts” everytime they talk about what they want from the cost-of-service study and that their arguments “aren’t based in reality.”

“I think Pima County should be on our side,” he said. “I hope the county reconsiders.”

Romero and Scott both said that the county-city conflict is overshadowing "the great work they're doing together," Scott said, and that they need to find some way to start cooperating better.

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

City Councilman Steve Kozachik said Wednesday that "we implemented differential rates based on solid legal advice from our attorneys."

"The courts will sort this out, and in the meantime it's important that the public see this issue will not drive a wedge between the city and the county on the many other important issues we need to collaborate on," Kozachik said in a press release. "If county residents wish to avoid paying the increased rate, they can do so by simply saving 1-2 Ccf in water use each month — then we all win."

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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4 comments
Nov 25, 2021, 1:37 pm
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If for no other reason the outlying water users should pay extra for the logistics involved in delivery, especially foothills customers.
BTW
There must be a way to recoup costs for the loss of city revenue from unassessed city taxes (what we pay as property tax) which pay for road maintenance EMS and police.

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