Broken Record

Pima County spending will top a billion dollars for the first time.

When he protested with scores of fellow citizens at a tax-and-spend meeting of the Board of Supervisors in 1999, Barney Brenner knew deep down that things could get worse.

The board's Democratic majority slightly lowered the spending ceiling in the face of the tea-party style protest, but approved the last of three straight tax increases--a whopping 11 percent boost that has fueled growth in Pima County spending ever since.

Prodded by its lawyers to raise cash to fill a hole in the county's budget, once $60 million deep--left by deficits in the health-care system--supervisors tried to soften the blow by explaining the increase was a temporary measure.

It is now in its fifth year. And for Brenner, it has grown worse.

Pima County property taxes at one of Barney's Import Parts locations have shot up from roughly $1,665 to $7,900. Two ingredients in Pima County's tax scheme have caused the dramatic rise. The first is the trio of tax increases approved by the supervisors that jacked up Brenner's bill immediately by $184. Then came steady increases in what the county said Brenner's auto parts store was worth.

Supervisors have used property owners like Brenner to prop up the huge increase in spending, with most of burden falling to business owners because state law caps the amount of property taxes paid by most homeowners. Budgets have bulged from $630 million in 1997 to $1.03 billion this year.

With only Republican Ann Day dissenting, supervisors approved the record, billion-plus budget last week.

"It's a huge increase in these low inflationary times," said Brenner, the president of the Pima County Republican Club. "As long as we have an unaccountable majority on the board, there will be this uncontrolled spending."

Brenner tried and failed to upset that majority three years ago with a run for the board in District 3, a sprawling territory that reaches from the northwest side to Ajo. His under-funded campaign was nipped by Democrat Sharon Bronson.

"The county is reaping a wonderful windfall," Brenner said from his store on West Prince Road. "And yet our traffic is still a mess; we are cutting trauma care, and cutting money from the libraries."

To be fair, the county is no longer in the trauma-care business, though it provided a one-time cash infusion to Tucson Medical Center two years ago. But county officials have dramatically cut services at Kino Community Hospital.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and supervisors were eager to point to a cut in the county's overall property tax rate 11 months ago. At 1.4 percent, it meant $20 for Brenner's parts store. But the savings were swallowed by the increase in what the county said the property is worth. And Pima County leads the state in property taxes.

This year, tax rates for daily county operations, flood control, bond debt, libraries and fire district assistance are expected to hold at a combined $5.50 per $100 of assessed value, or $550 for a $100,000 home, when supervisors put the final stamp on taxes at the Aug. 18 meeting.

Even so, higher values for Brenner and most others will boost tax revenues used for daily county operations by $15.3 million to $196.5 million.

The overall net taxable value of property in Pima County rose 7.7 percent, according to county figures, to $5.03 billion. Half of that, Huckelberry said in a memo to supervisors, is the result of new construction. The rest is due to increased values in existing homes, businesses and still-vacant lots.

Drops in state sales taxes and auto licenses also were not as bad as expected. As a result, the county--unlike many government bodies in the area--is firmly in the black.

The windfall has given the county one of it biggest year-end surpluses in years at $19.1 million, up by more than $5.6 million over last year.

Huckelberry guided supervisors on a plan--not to give some of the money back to taxpayers, but to spend it. The biggest share will go to begin to chop into the construction overrun and operating deficit at the Kino Veterans Sports Park, and its spring training and Triple-A centerpiece, Tucson Electric Park. Gains in the ending balance will allow the county to plow more than $1.9 million into deficit reduction built up by the failure of the county to collect enough money from stadium revenue or from taxes on rental cars, hotels rooms and recreation vehicle spaces.

The surplus also will allow the county to spend $1 million to expand the crowded forensics sciences center, opened in 1989 to replace the old morgue downtown. And the county will create an information technology department with $1 million and spend another $200,000 for a start-up of E-procurement. Another $1 million will be spent to cut into the $4 million in above-estimate costs for the new jail.

Richard Elias, the District 5 Democrat in his second year representing the westside and the UA area, says he and fellow supervisors are not blind to the high tax issue.

"I think constituents are always concerned about taxes no matter where they live," Elias said.

Cost-shifts from the state and federal governments, though not as dire as earlier predicted, have still forced the county and other municipalities to bear more responsibilities.

For the time, Elias said, the county must maintain its revenue bases to "maintain the safety net" it provides in services and programs.