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Propped Up 

The county, TUSD brag about tax cuts, yet property owners will pay more because of sharp value increases

Those who levy taxes throughout Pima County are looking for love.

They want--and are often getting from the daily press--credit for cutting property tax rates, even as property values, continuing their multi-year rise, have rendered rate cuts meaningless.

The Board of Supervisors culminated the tax-levying season Monday with unanimous approval of Pima County's tax rates, trimming them by $6--not enough for a movie ticket--on a home valued at $200,000. Pima has the highest property tax rate of any Arizona county.

"This is certainly a move in the right direction," said Supervisor Ann Day, a Republican, who made no attempt at a meaningful cut.

Democrat Richard Elias chimed in that he had "taxpayers in my heart as well." But when Day, noting that the county would continue to reap more revenue via increased property values, said the county "should not spend every cent," Elias countered that the county has "many needs" and that it must address the "disparity that continues to grow" between the haves and have-nots.

When they ratified 80 other tax levies and rates for school districts, fire districts and improvement districts, supervisors stamped a passing grade on the region's other tax leader, the Tucson Unified School District. Board members and financial officers for the district boasted earlier this summer about the 5 percent cut in taxes used for daily school operations.

No cut is more illusory. On paper, the reduction appears to give $78 back to the owner of a $200,000 home. The cash savings, however, is zero on residential property.

That's because homeowners in TUSD and within Tucson or South Tucson are at the cap on what they have to pay in primary property taxes--those used to pay for daily school and government operations. The cap, part of state law, limits the combined primary tax rate for TUSD, the county, the city, state education and Pima Community College to $10 per $100 of assessed value, or $2,000 on a $200,000 home. TUSD's cut brought the combined rate to $10.12, rendering the TUSD cut meaningless to homeowners. However, owners of commercial and other non-residential property will benefit from the TUSD cut.

When TUSD's board, with Judy Burns dissenting, approved a $349 million budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, Arizona Daily Star reporter Aaron Mackey wrote on July 13 that "property taxes for residents and businesses within the district will not increase." His source was Pat Beatty, TUSD's executive director of financial services.

Mackey also noted that homeowners already were at the state cap.

But that hardly blocks increased taxes flowing from homeowners and other property owners to TUSD. Indeed, even with the cut, TUSD's total levy--the amount that can be pulled from property taxes--rose by $100,000 for daily operations in this fiscal year. TUSD also cut its tax rate, by $10 a year on a $200,000 home, for secondary taxes, the portion used to repay voter-approved debt. Even with the cut, TUSD will take in $1 million more in taxes for bond repayment.

A month earlier, the City Council adopted its $1 billion budget along with a slight property tax increase--$10 on a $200,000 home. Coverage by Tucson Citizen reporter Brad Branan on June 15 quoted the city budget director as saying city taxes decreased.

"That's not true," said Bill Heuisler, a tax crusader who lost his Republican bid for county assessor last November. "It's never true when the papers say property taxes are going down. And when you write a letter to the editor, they don't run it."

Heuisler said accurate attention must be focused on what he calls "the tax creep," the increased taxes resulting from increased property values. That creep for the county, despite the minor cut, will mean $21.6 million more in property tax revenues this year.

Jeff Hill, an accountant and former six-term Republican state senator, knows the creep well. He will pay $1,000 more in property taxes this year on two buildings he and his wife, Patricia, own in the 4200 block of East Grant Road.

That's the good news. Next year, even if tax rates stay constant, Hill faces an 85 percent increase in his property tax bill on one portion of the property. The value of the office jumped from $64,800 to $120,000. The value of the other piece of the property will jump 23 percent from $99,825 to $123,454, and the ratio on which the tax is based has increased from 10 percent, for pure residential, to 14.7 percent. Hill has his office there; his wife has a hair salon, and part of the property is residential.

"We're a small business. They say, 'You can pass it along.' What's my wife to do? Put an extra dollar on a hair cut? Well, you can't just do that." Hill said.

"This is a hidden tax, a hidden tax increase," Hill said. "For those who pay taxes as part of their mortgage, they think the increase is part of mortgage insurance or something else."

Hill was Heuisler's campaign manager and the two advocated property value freezes.

"It looks to me like they singled me out," Hill said of Democratic Assessor Bill Staples. "I don't believe in coincidences."

Jim Crane, the chief deputy assessor, said: "I guarantee there was no thought as to who owned the property."

Hill has appealed the value that the assessor affixed to his property. "That's his right," Crane said.

It is not a routine appeal. Hill accused a member of Staples staff of lying during a hearing when the staff member said he could not identify other properties and said he could not read Hill's petition. Hill said the deputy assessor refused to look at the original petition and instead insisted on using a copy that did not have print as clear.

"This perjured information prejudiced the hearing against (me) as it distracted the hearing officer from the real issues at hand," Hill said in a July 5 letter to Staples.

Hill's appeal was rejected by the assessor and is pending before the state Board of Equalization.

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