Balancing Act

Supervisors Juggle The County's Books.

By Chris Limberis

IT'S NEVER BEEN complicated. Pima County voters hate sales taxes.

The evidence:

Despite suffering overburdened roads, voters rejected a half-cent sales tax that would have helped pay for a billion-dollar transportation plan in 1986. The vote: 57 percent to 43 percent. Supporters blamed the loss on the plan's developer-freeway bent.

Currents Foolishly believing they could draw a better plan, city officials, namely then-Councilman and now Mayor George Miller, prodded the county in 1990 to ask for another half-cent sales tax increase for transportation improvements. Miller's crossing fails by 61 percent to 39 percent. Miller and his friends blamed the loss on the poor economy exacerbated by uncertainty of the Gulf War. Oh, that Saddam.

Four years later and carrying the anti-crime banner (a populist as well as boutique issue), the county sought a quarter-cent sales tax for new jails and juvenile detention facilities. The measure is crushed by 70 percent to 30 percent. County mishandling of the issue--namely, ballot placement manipulation and phony tax projections and impacts--killed the tax even though problems were real: The Juvenile Center was under a federal court order to reduce overcrowding and the main jail was bursting at the seams.

The message seemed clear. No sales taxes on top of the nickel per dollar the state charges, as well as the two cents levied by Tucson, South Tucson, Marana and Oro Valley. In fact, voters gladly approved new jails, expanded juvie and transportation improvements--all financed with property taxes--at last year's giant bond election.

So it is out of the three graves that the sales tax emerges. And from an unlikely source: Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, a Democrat who is arguably the most popular and stable elected official in the county.

Dupnik told the Board of Supervisors last week that it was time to consider a half-cent sales tax to raise between $42 million and $45 million a year to fight crime and help people get around the county on better roads and better transit.

Dupnik made his understated pitch at a review--it would never rise to the level of a "hearing''--the Board of Supervisors held over the course of three mornings last week on County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's proposed $742 million budget for the 1998-'99 fiscal year that begins July 1.

He admitted that he didn't have any answers or plans, but implored the board to tap all resources to determine how best to market the county's needs.

"I know you try the best you can. You don't have a money tree. You have a responsibility to the taxpayer just as I do,'' said Dupnik, who was too nice to the board.

Even muted, Dupnik's suggestion marked a firm change of stance.

Dupnik was dubious in 1990 when then Assistant County Manager Bruce Postil engineered a legislative package that gave the county renewed authority for an election on a half-cent sales tax for transportation; authority for an election on the quarter-cent tax for jails; and permission to levy a half-cent sales tax, for anything, without a public vote. A unanimous vote of the Board of Supervisors is all that's necessary for a sales-tax increase, but no board has yet been willing.

Dupnik opposed the jail tax then because he was against the separate taxing district it would have created for his jails. (The county already has separate tax districts for flood control and libraries.) He reluctantly got on board for the 1994 jail tax election that was DOA.

In conciliatory tones on Thursday, Dupnik struck themes similar to those he has during his 18 years as sheriff. He doesn't have enough cops to answer the calls from people in unincorporated Pima County. He now has 1.28 deputies per 100 residents, down from the 1.46 he had three years ago. So far short is his department that it would take 288 new deputies just to get the national standard.

"It's not acceptable," Dupnik said. "Forget what people deserve."

The county would need to beg the Legislature for permission to ask voters to approve a crime/transportation sales tax. Authority still exists to levy the other half-cent on purely a unanimous vote of the board, but that remains unlikely. Republican Ray Carroll, an appointee, can't very well vote for a sales tax as he runs for election in a three-way primary in District 4, which stretches from Tucson's eastside to Green Valley. And Democrat Sharon Bronson, whose District 3 covers the northwest and southwest sides as well as all of western Pima County, has said she's against a sales tax.

But then she also pledged to each of her record-setting town halls last year that property taxes would be cut. She was the swing vote to increase them.

Supervisors have more to worry about than Dupnik's $62.5 million budget for the upcoming year.

The board, following Democrat Dan Eckstrom's lead, may have set a tone of authority on the first day of budget review. While county officials wanted to cut the JobPath, the job training program backed by the Pima County Interfaith Council, in half to $125,000, Eckstrom quickly delivered a motion to put at total of $375,000 into the program.

"This is not Huckelberry's or (county money boss) Carol Bonchalk's budget,'' Eckstrom said later, after he and Democrat Raul Grijalva reveled in the PCIC crowd.

Grijalva will need Eckstrom's help, again, to block Huckelberry's plan to reduce Library District taxes by 4 cents, from 22 cents per $100 of assessed value ($22 a year for a $100,000 home) to 18 cents. Huckelberry is seeking that reduction partly to help counter his other plan, to boost the primary tax rate, used to fund daily county operations, by 11 cents to $3.69.

Operated by the city under the Tucson-Pima Library, the service is one of the rare examples of city-county cooperation. The county's portion, mislabeled the Free Library District, uses property taxes to pay its $7.8 million share. The nifty joint system is not so nifty for city residents. They pay twice, through county property taxes as well as nominal city property taxes and sales taxes.

Huckelberry's proposal would cut library taxes to the lowest level in nine years. In fact, since Grijalva (whose wife Ramona is the excellent director of the Sam Lena branch of library in South Tucson) has been on the board, library taxes have risen 40 percent.

Grijalva wants Huckelberry to instead look at one of the administrator's pet departments, flood control. Also a separate district, flood control's taxes have gone from a record high of 76 cents per $100 in 1987-'88--to just under 33 cents this year.

Huckelberry's library cut would mean $1.2 million less. Library Director Agnes Griffen says that would mean fewer books, less staff, no increase in hours and less money and staff to operate an ever-expanding system.

Part of Griffen's headache is uncertainty. The city will adopt its $724 million budget in time for the start of the fiscal year, while the supervisors won't adopt a budget until August 4 and not set tax rates until August 17.

If Huckelberry doesn't get his property tax increase, the county will be short more than $100,000, because $8.6 million has already been spent or pledged. More money will be needed, particularly next year, in operating all the new space at the Juvenile Center.

And we'll also find out how well the county did in curtailing youth crime. Five years ago, Huckelberry notes, barely $500,000 was devoted to juvenile crime prevention. The next year, the board increased that to $1.5 million. The last two years, the bill has hit $5 million annually. Although there was a reported drop in juvenile crime last year, juvenile crime was up tenfold from 1992 to 1996, according to a county report.

It may all get back to the county chimera: the sales tax.

When he orchestrated the sales tax trifecta, Bruce Postil was scarcely daunted by the anti-tax poseurs he worked for.

"Wait," Postil would say, "until they see what's in the trough for them." TW

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