The most-recent population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau tell a troubling story of Pima County residents' disdain for municipal life.
More than 353,000 of the 980,263 county residents counted in the 2010 census, or 36 percent, lived outside of the boundaries of the county's five incorporated cities and towns.
Each of those people ends up costing the region in terms of its portion of state-shared revenue, specifically from state income tax, which is apportioned only to incorporated communities.
The county has many well-known enclaves—Green Valley, Catalina, Picture Rocks and the Catalina foothills, to name a few—that traditionally haven't shown much interest in incorporating.
One exception is Vail, which has talked up the idea for years, and now has an exploratory committee looking into whether the area southeast of Tucson can exist as its own town.
"This has been talked about here for a long time, but it's never gotten to a vote," said Robert Samuelsen, who chairs the "Vision Quest" subcommittee on behalf of the nongovernmental Vail Community Action Board. "We're checking to see if this can be done. If we can do this, we'll have one shot, so we want to do it right."
Incorporation in Arizona occurs by one of two means: Get two-thirds of the registered voters in a defined area to sign a petition approving incorporation, thus automatically creating a town or city; or get 10 percent of those voters to sign a petition, setting up a special election that would require majority approval for incorporation.
Samuelsen, the financial director for the Regional Transportation Authority in his day job, said Vail's likely path to incorporation is via the 10 percent route. A straw poll conducted a year ago during a public meeting showed that 57 percent of about 300 people attending favored setting up a new town.
The proposed town boundaries more or less hug the meandering southeast edge of Tucson and extend south to parts of Corona de Tucson, north to Old Spanish Trail, and east to where Interstate 10 meets the Sonoita Highway.
All told, the area that would be Vail is home to 11,491 residents. That's less than half the population of Sahuarita (25,259), the county's newest town, but when Sahuarita was formed in 1995, less than 3,000 people lived there.
Vail's last strong push for incorporation came in 1995. The effort failed when Tucson annexed land near Interstate 10 and Harrison Road that put it within six miles of Vail's proposed boundaries. State law requires a new town to get permission from any cities or towns within six miles of its borders, and that didn't happen.
However, current Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild has spoken publicly about his desire to see unincorporated areas become parts of towns, whether they be existing towns or new ones. Samuelsen said the Vail group has met with Rothschild to get his blessing during the exploration process.
"If he was to say, 'Take a hike,' that would be a real showstopper for us," Samuelsen said.
Rothschild said last week that he likely will back their cause despite his concerns about the ability of Vail to support itself.
"I would encourage them, but at the same time, I would caution them," he said. "If they can make a go of it, good. If, in fact, this doesn't work economically, I'm happy to talk to (them) about coming into the city of Tucson."
Rothschild said Pima County loses about $70 million a year in state-shared revenue due to its unincorporated residents. A study by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns showed that if Vail were to incorporate by July 1, it could collect about $3.25 million annually from state-shared revenue. That comes to about $283 per resident, far below what Samuelsen said is Sahuarita's per-capita revenue of $1,500.
Vail would likely enact its own sales tax, something all of Arizona's 91 existing cities and towns have done. Beyond that, it's unclear where Vail would get the rest of the revenue needed for public safety, transportation, administration and other services required by state law.
One source that Samuelsen says is off the table is a property tax.
Tom Belshe, deputy director of the League of Cities and Towns, says none of the 15 most-recent incorporations in Arizona have included a property tax, and that statewide, only 55 of the 91 cities and towns have one. Locally, only Tucson and South Tucson have a property tax.
Vail's proposed boundaries fall entirely within the district represented by Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll. Incorporation wouldn't eliminate his representation, although it would lessen Carroll's involvement in issues such as development and zoning.
"Sometimes, people want to have a government that's closest to home," Carroll said of Vail's likely motivation. "They always say it's a choice between another layer of government and the continuation of the status quo. I've cooperated with the people who are looking into the incorporation. I think it's just a choice, that they want to give the people the opportunity to (vote) up or down. ... It doesn't offend me at all. I'm more than willing to help them become a town."
Pima County would still provide the area with sewers and services such as animal control. The new town would likely work out a contract with the Pima County Sheriff's Department to handle public safety in its initial years. Fire protection would come from existing fire districts such as Rincon Valley and Corona de Tucson.
Samuelsen said the Vision Quest committee will continue to meet, and that tentative plans call for town-hall-style meetings by the fall.
"We still have a lot of studying to do," Samuelsen said. If an election is approved, "Our initial focus would be: How lean can we run? The League of Cities and Towns said there's never been a city that's failed, ever."