Water ruling against city scuffs growth management, highlights Pima-Tucson rift that helps no one

Blake Morlock
10 Min Read

Residents in unincorporated areas won’t get hit with a 10 percent surcharge on their bills from Tucson Water – at least not yet.

A Maricopa County Superior Court Judge put the brakes on the city of Tucson’s practice of charging customers in the county more than the city.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors sued after a move by the Tucson City Council to hit the water customers in outside the city limits with a 10 percent surcharge (or more).

Judge Randall Warner’s five-page ruling came out Friday.

Warner didn’t declare  “My God, the Tucson City Council violated the laws of God and nature! Be gone with this abomination! Send it forthwith back to Perdition’s brimstone, from which it surely sprung!” 

He just decided the City Council raised the rates the wrong way.

Warner ruled the state law requires water rates be set on “just and reasonable” grounds. Just and reasonable immediately becomes an eye of the beholder thing for the courts to define. Randall decided, and cited the Arizona Constitution and precedent to back his point up, that reasonable rates are based on the cost of service delivery.

A study is therefore required to establish cost of delivery and cashflow issues involved in extending service beyond the city limits.

The city provided one, ex post facto. The judged ruled the study came after the rates were set in October 2021. An effort to re-approve followed. 

Warner basically tossed the study as a post-hoc effort to justify action, rather than a finding of financial facts necessitating a rate hike.

So a rate hike on county residents may well be justified if the city went and did a water study that could pass legal muster proving the pumping of water beyond the city limits costs more. Seems highly doable. Or does it? Is it more expensive to maintain water lines in the Catalina Foothills than at North First Avenue and East Grant Road? Does it cost 10 percent more?

The study the found that differential rate hikes between 9 and 26 percent would be justified.

Studies come with assumptions provided by the client. How accurate or viable are those assumptions?

We’ll have to wait and see.

A small tool for growth management

It’s not a horrible idea, on paper, to charge Tucson residents less than county residents in unincorporated areas.

If for no other reason, it is a small tool to fight sprawl.

Cheaper costs closer to the middle of the city encourage cash-wise developers to build closer to town.

Preventing sprawl prevents a whole bunch of other costs that can pile up on a community, and especially the county. It’s the Pima County budget that gets hit by sprawl. The Board of Supervisors has to answer to votes as it raises in taxes to pay for growth in unincorporated parts of the county.

It is a constant complaint of Pima County that it has to serve an urban population north of River Road. State law does not help counties govern urban counties because urban populations are supposed to live in cities or towns. For instance, state revenue sharing provides more city and town governments than counties.

Local governments have more authority and charter governments have a lot more autonomy to govern without oversight by the state Legislature.

Counties are designed by law to run a jail, tend to public health and collect to disperse tax money to component jurisdictions.

An eyeroll for the ages

I pointed this out to Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson last year for a column on the subject.

How do I put this: I’m pretty sure there is still scar tissue in her sockets from the sheer torque of the eyeroll she gave me. I could hear it through the phone. 

Yes. Differential water rates can kinda, sorta, maybe help steer growth a little on the margins if viewed from the proper angle while squinting.

It makes for a lousy growth boundary.

On the other hand, every little bit can help.

Tucson Water operates as an enterprise fund, which means that the cost of maintaining the system is met by collecting water rates. It remains unsubsidized by city property taxes, so Tucsonans aren’t paying out of general fund money to provide water to the county. 

Again, the court ruled that if the rates are justified based on costs, then have at it. 

Study first. Rate hike second. Study first. Rate hike second. 

One love

But hold on Pima County, you aren’t off the hook either.

Bronson had this to say about Randall’s ruling:

“It’s a relief to know that ratepayers in the unincorporated county will not be treated differently than other Tucson Water users in the county. This is not a matter that needed to go to court — we spent more than a year asking and even pleading with the city to reconsider this unfair and illegal action against its neighbors. This outcome helps to make things right.”

The board was just standing up for its constituents, see.

Except, not really.

The supervisors are the closest thing people living in unincorporated areas have to a city council. However, they aren’t the only people the board represents. The board also represents people living within Tucson city limits There are more of them (550,000 or so) than are there people living in unincorporated parts of the county (320,000).

Bronson does have a huge number of those voters. Her district goes clear out to La Jolla.

But even she represents Tucsonans. Her District 3 goes into Tucson from the west all the way to East Grant and North Swan roads.

If people like me subsidize water delivery to surgeons in the Catalina Foothills, then are they really representing their constituents? Cross arms. Tap toe.

But we’re not the same

And this represents a bigger historical problem in Southern Arizona government. Persistent sniping, griping, crabbiness and more than a few proverbial middle fingers have been extended among local governments. A county engineer decides they’re gonna show that person in city planning and the people pay the price.

It shouldn’t be about the personalities staffing different jurisdictions, or this council member hates that mayor, or whatever middle-school lunchroom nonsense. If Tucson suffers, Pima County suffers. If Marana turns into a fetid cesspool than how does that make Tucson better? It doesn’t.

The City Council did kind of go Sherman’s cavalry on these rates. At least that’s how the county sees it.

They did it because they could, which is not like the city these days. Folks over at City Hall will go out of their way to hold any number of public hearings before changing so much as a law allowing food trucks.

They could have found an accommodation with the county because water policy will be everything for Tucson’s future.

Instead, Tucson and Pima County’s relationship spiraled toward the ground, which helps no one.

The region’s number one concern now isn’t how to control growth. Tucson, et. al., could use growth to fight the housing shortage. Tucson’s number one challenge now is how to protect our water future from threats within and without.

In case anyone needs a local jurisdiction to eye with suspicion (and even malice), I got one for you. It’s called Maricopa County. When Phoenix and its conurbation goes dry, it will be coming for everyone.

So yeah, this was a minor setback in the ways of urban planning and an annoying example of kids not playing well together. 

But gird up. The water war is just starting.

Blake Morlock www.tucsonsentinel.com news,politics,environment,sci_tech,trans_growth

2023-09-16 02:41:35 , All Headlines | TucsonSentinel.com

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