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Opinion

What the Devil won't tell you

Tucson's water rate plan is good policy, undercut by sniping with Pima County

Pima County supervisors voted to sue the city of Tucson over a new water rate plan that will charge those who live outside of city limits more to run their taps than city dwellers.

The supervisors call this new plan unfair to county residents who will be suddenly socked with higher water rates. But the thing is, it’s smart policy to establish incentives for people who live in urbanized areas to live under urban governments.

Pima County, like all counties in Arizona, lacks the authority to operate urban services. We know this because counties in Arizona don’t offer water services. There are no county fire departments.

And yet the unincorporated population of Pima County stands at about 368,000. It’s 36 percent of the county’s population and it’s pretty damned concentrated on the Northwest Side. By contrast, Maricopa County’s unincorporated population is at 316,000, or 7 percent (ish) of that county’s population.

Pima County’s unincorporated population would count as the the third largest city in Arizona.

So the county is suing out of a sense of fairness, but not necessarily a practice of wise growth control.

I really try not to write two columns at once, but the differential water rate brouhaha involves two issues in play: smart growth management and the counter-productive, decades-long rolling, roiling political gunfight between Pima County and the city of Tucson.

I’m going to leave the legal merits of the suit alone because God knows I don’t need to be writing three columns. I’m going to focus on the policy and the politics.

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A growth management goal of any community should be to steer development into the incorporated areas and get existing communities outside municipal lines to either incorporate or get annexed.

On the other hand, the city could have handled this better. Having covered local government for 25 years, I can tell you that the verb phrase “could have handled this better” is a timeless description of Tucson-Pima relations.

This perpetual political sniping occasionally flares into a hot legal war and that helps no one.

It would be so much better if they just sat down and talked about this stuff ahead of time and had the discussions in the context a broader vision for the community.

County limits/City lines

Counties are just not set up to handle big, dense populations. That hasn’t prevented a history of explosive growth under the Board of Supervisors’ noses.

County governments exist almost purely as subdivisions of the state government. They were basically established to operate a criminal justice and civil court systems, run an early 20th century health care program for the indigent, map out zoning and pass laws to accommodate country living.

Pima County could but doesn’t operate under a charter. Voters haven’t given the county the authority to pass laws independent of – and even somewhat contrary to – the wishes of the state Legislature.

Every Arizona city of reasonable size can have a charter and govern themselves in a manner that they see fit. The Tucson City Council can, if it wishes, pass laws that Bullhead City voters would call socialist atrocities. 

To block such a city ordinance, the state Legislature must show a genuine statewide concern.

The counties are different. To bigfoot county ordinances, the Legislature basically needs a pen, a pad of paper and a bare majority vote. 

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The idea is that municipal services should be provided by municipal governments.

That's how funding operates, too. The state shares income, sales and vehicle license tax dollars in a way that favors cities over counties. The formula is complicated and the history a mess, but take a look at the current budgets and the effects are plain. 

The city of Tucson gets $207 million in shared state tax revenues in the current budget. Pima County gets $162 million.

Tucson has a population of 543,000. Pima County’s total population runs 1.1 million. The city is getting more than three times the state shared revenue per-person as the county.

The net effect gives cities more financial power to run their own affairs.

Shared tax dollars was a major reason for the push behind incorporation of Casas Adobes and Tortolita in the 1990s. 

Incentives for growth

Cities like Tucson, can encourage growth in the unincorporated county when they makes a municipal service, like water, available at the same rate for city and unincorporated customers.

For instance, residential development fees are more expensive in the unincorporated Pima County compared to the city’s charges. A developer seeking a permit for a 100-home development on the city’s northwest side (the city’s fees are based on four zones, house size and subdivision size) would pay $5,652 per home. The county’s charge is $6,818. Oro Valley’s fees are also cheaper and Sahuarita doesn’t have impact fees.

That’s good. The rules provide a little nudge to developers to consider building within municipal limits.

What would be better is that the community would sit down and figure out how to use impact fees in a way that would steer growth away from more environmentally sensitive areas and toward the places where new development is more appropriate.

Differential water rates could be part of that discussion.

Who fired first?

Done alone, it’s a tool but it’s effectiveness is limited absent hat broader strategy.

County Board Chair Sharon Bronson told me she would love to pursue better growth management policies. A single city rate schedule only goes so far toward that end. And she's got a point. But see the part about sitting down together.

In the mean time, she voted to start litigation over the city rate increase out of a sense of fairness (she’s also a customer who'll see a rate hike).

“Those of us like me who are being penalized now – it’s not equitable,” Bronson said. “We have an obligation to ensure that all of our residents get equitable treatment.”

That’s a reasonable political stance. Pima County ratepayers shouldn’t start singing "We Shall Overcome" out of a sense of political persecution, but representative democracy means its Bronson’s job to represent.

Know what? City Councilmember Paul Cunningham was also representing his constituents when he voted for the rate plan. Other cities in Arizona have differential rates and city residents are on the hook for Tucson Water's bills should, say, a bond go bad because of insufficient revenues. County residents are not.

He also kind of takes my view (or vice-versa) on growth management policy.

“This wasn’t a good policy not to have differential rates in the first place,” Cunningham said. “We need to look forward in the region and be a big-boy region.”

Cunningham also said he’s willing to figure out how to hold harmless those folks living on big plots of land the way the state’s founders intended for county residents. A move like that would also encourage a rural belt of sorts to develop around the urban core.

The new fees would cost the average county homeowner $5 a month. He said the city could have gone bigger but he didn’t want to go that far.

“I didn’t want to jam people up with $100 a month,” Cunningham said. “It’s totally legal. It’s just not cool.”

No, this differential rate plan wouldn’t strike a decisive blow for smart growth. It would be a step and some steps are better than none.

Any effort to manage growth will fall short if local governments surrounding the urban core aren’t cooperating or at least consulting.

And on this, Bronson said she felt slighted because she tried to have conversations with the city but heard nothing.

Correction: She says she did hear something. “It was crickets.”

Talk to each other

For instance, the county Board of Supervisors and City Council could agree on a policy that would establish a series of incentives for new growth to happen inside municipal limits or encourage existing neighborhoods to incorporate.

Of course, the reason the Casas Adobes and Tortolita incorporations failed is former Mayor George Miller led the Council to object to county residents creating these towns. State law gives cities and towns within six miles a veto ... for reasons passing fricking understanding.

Those towns had to disincorporate because Tucson objected.

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Cunningham said he's willing to push for a 10-year pass for incorporation if the county drops the lawsuit.

The city and county have been in one form of battle or another since before Lute Olson. There have been periods of peace. This isn't one of them.

What can be forgotten is that 55 percent of county voters are also city residents. And every city voter is a resident of the county. So these governments can get into shouting matches over whether to screw over my left leg to better serve my right arm.

These fights make less sense to voters than it does to elected leaders.

What is also true, is that  past cooperation lead to a deal that gave the county the wastewater service and the city getting to run the water department. Now, both sides feel like they got shafted in that deal.

And yet, good things can happen when they work together. We have a Regional Transportation Authority because both governments sat down and worked together. That kind of teamwork guided $2 billion in road and transit spending for going on 20 years. 

Working with and not against each other gave the area the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, which has been the region’s chief growth management guide for about the same amount of time. Zoning battles no longer dominate the headlines.

I still think (even though the 10th floor of the County Administration Building thinks I’m absolutely nuts) there is a way for local governments to come together and impose a regional tax and revenue-sharing policy. Instead, each government acts like it’s the only authority that taxes.

Even out the tax burden and the revenue streams, I say. 

Cooperation can work, has worked and should be the goal in the future.

Regional government is probably the best way to run the Tucson area’s public sector. The odds are better that someone will launch a successful rafting business along the Santa Cruz River than I’ll ever see a single, over-arching government writing the rules for greater Tucson.

We don’t need to go that far.

Bronson and Cunningham have both been around politics for a good, long time. They are both wonky about policy.

They should be making a point of talking to each other if they are having issues with one another.

The current kerfuffle isn’t about Phoenix suing Washington. The supes can see Tucson City Hall from their office windows. They shouldn’t be leaving it to the lawyers and the courts to hash out their relationship.

Just talk to each other. The voters you screw, might be your own.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years, and as a communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Sharon Bronson calls the fight to stop higher water rates for county residents a matter of 'equity.'

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