Invasion of the Booty Snatchers

The city of Tucson and Pima County just can't get along when it comes to money issues.

Call it the City Hall shakedown. Tucson City Council members and City Manager James Keene are complaining loudly these days that they're getting cheated by Pima County, especially when it comes to bond projects.

So as the county puts together a bond package for a special May election, city officials are scrambling to grab themselves a fat slice of the pie. How much? Well, last week, city planner Albert Elias appeared before the citizen committee reviewing bond projects with nearly $644 million in requests, including new parks, libraries, court facilities and fire and police stations.

That's quite a pitch, given that county officials are trying to keep the total package to roughly $450 million so that new bonds can be sold as old ones are retired to avoid increasing property taxes.

City officials are perfectly aware that they're not going to get everything they want, but they say that roughly half the county's property taxes, which will be used to pay off the bonds over time, comes from city residents. Ergo, they argue, half the bond dollars should be spent inside the city limits--and they are in a better position to decide how that money should be spent than county officials. They also want county officials to agree to legally binding language that spells out who gets control of those projects.

The city isn't alone in its demands--smaller communities such as Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita are also making requests--but it's by far the biggest and boldest grab in the history of local bond elections.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the argument from City Hall "starts with a real false premise," says Huckelberry, "and that false premise is that the city and the county are governmental agencies that provide the same services to entirely different populations but are approximately equal. That's just not true."

The county, argues Huckelberry, has the job of providing regional services to all residents of Pima County--and in two of the biggest areas of the Pima County budget, criminal justice and health care, Tucson residents eat up plenty of resources.

The county runs the courts--including the rising cost of both prosecutors and public defenders--with little help from the city or the state. Huckelberry estimates that at least 60 percent of the court cases originate with the Tucson Police Department.

The county's biggest health care expense is Kino Hospital, which costs the county's general fund somewhere around $20 million a year, according to Huckelberry, who adds that 80 to 90 percent of the people who use Kino have an address within the Tucson city limits.

Given that, Huckelberry says, city residents benefited plenty from the last general obligation bond package, passed in May 1997. For starters, the biggest single item was a $42 million juvenile justice hall that gets plenty of referrals from the Tucson Police Department. Within the city limits, the county has contributed to expanding four different parks, with a fifth underway. Four flood control projects have been completed, and another three are under development.

The ongoing acrimony between the city and the county largely stems from a revenue bond issue passed in November 1997 to raise money for roads. In a controversial maneuver, former District 2 Supervisor Dan Eckstrom directed dollars originally meant to widen the western end of 22nd Street to residential streets on the city's southside. Other projects that the county was supposed to complete with the city, including stretches of Broadway Boulevard and Grant Road, are on indefinite hold.

In his defense, Huckelberry points out that the road bonds weren't paid off through property taxes, but from the county's share of state gas taxes--and the city already gets a bigger slice of that pie than the county does. Of every buck collected by the state's gas tax, roughly half stays with the state to build highways, 30 cents comes back to the city and 20 cents goes the county.

Nonetheless, city officials wanted a piece of the action on the road bonds--and threatened to cause trouble if they didn't get it.

County officials agreed to share some of the road projects, but insisted that the city contribute to the costs of those projects.

Unable to come up with their share, city officials have asked the county to hand over the money so they can complete just one of the projects. Huckelberry has rebuffed the demand, saying the city has to hold up its end of the bargain.

Besides, it's not like Huckelberry has the money just lying around, especially given the cost overruns on some road projects in the 1997 package, which have been tainted by accusations of political patronage.

No matter how you view the fight over the 1997 road bonds, it set the stage for the current atmosphere of distrust and demand.

"It was pretty much blackmail," Huckelberry now says of the city's 1997 demand. "The city says 'We want a big part of your HURF bonds or we'll urge everybody to vote against it.' In hindsight, we probably should have said, 'Fine, go ahead.'"