THE PIMA COUNTY Board of Supervisors just raised the property tax rate. The mythical average homeowner will now pay about $2.50 a month more in property tax; the "average" small business will cough up almost three times that. Everybody's looking for somebody to blame. The supes are blamed for waste and pork and failing to manage properly. Most of the supes blame the health care deficit and some even dare to mention the dumber acts of prior Boards. The county's health czar has been dumped for failing to stem the tide of massive red ink. Many pols and most editorial writers advocate a tax shift to a half-cent sales tax as relief, neglecting to note that Pima County voters have rejected that option three times in the past 12 years. And that a tax shift still means higher taxes.
Meanwhile, all real property owners' homes and businesses have been steadily taxed more as both the real and assessed values constantly creep up under the dual pressures of monetary inflation and massive population growth. That's great if you consider your house primarily an "investment," but it's a bummer if you look upon it primarily as a place to live. And a real bummer if you pay rent.
What everybody is avoiding is any discussion of the real cause of ever-increasing local governmental budgets.
Yes, there is fat and pork and bad judgment in county government. There is always fat and pork and bad judgement in any budget, public or private. That's why so many businesses go under and why many corporations have periods where they lose their butt. Pima County probably doesn't waste any more than the average government or big corporation. And the amount isn't enough to explain the entire tax increase or all the other tax increases that have been part of local governments for the past 50 years.
Critics of county government are always long on accusations and short on specifics. One person's pork is another's vital project. Even when you add up all the relatively petty items they can name, you're nowhere near enough to negate the tax increase.
The reason county and city and school district budgets keep growing is simple: the number of people they serve keeps growing. In Pima County, we've gone from 531,433 residents in 1980 to 656,880 in 1990 to an estimated 800,000 today. I've got a really great land deal up in Mohave County for everyone who believes all these new folks pay for themselves.
New "services" keep getting invented for all these new residents, often by higher governmental jurisdictions and the courts, which simply mandate programs and services without sending along any new revenues. The only place in Pima County that's had a major budget decrease that stuck is the ghost town of Ruby.
More people means more income to governments in the form of new taxpayers, but expenditures are not directly proportional to those new additions. It's skewed in the same way that the revenue sources and tax loopholes are skewed. Twice as many people don't make government cost twice as much, they make government cost more than twice as much.
This is caused by three basic factors, all part of the massive population growth we have experienced for the last half-century or so in Arizona and Pima County. The first cause is the disproportionate taxation that sends two of every three local tax dollars to state government while forcing the local governments to supply most of the services the new residents require -- roads, cops, schools, sewers and all the rest.
The second is the massive tax loopholes exploited by those profiting the most from population growth. One of the most blatant examples is the morphing of the original agricultural exemption on vacant land. Originally designed as a tax break for ranchers and farmers, it has become a tax giveaway to developers and land speculators who pay virtually no taxes on vacant land that has already been rezoned for master-planned communities, as long as they run a few cows on it.
The third way more growth raises taxes: an expanded population puts pressure on local governments to provide brand-new services, as well as expand existing ones. As the population grows, new interest groups coalesce to lobby for projects and services never before needed. One small example: when the Board of Supervisors voted to discuss adding a half-cent sales tax to cover the current Kino Hospital deficit and provide better funding for law enforcement, a brand-new interest group showed up promoting a downtown aquarium. They wanted a big hunk of the sales tax revenue for that project. Regardless of your feelings about the aquarium, we are now big enough to discuss having one and we've produced an interest group to lobby for higher taxes to pay for it.
Those are some of the ways you pay your growth bill. They are nothing new -- all other high-growth communities have faced the same problem. That's why taxes are higher per capita in Los Angeles than they are in most of rural North Dakota. Growth costs more than government gets from it, raising the unit costs.
Could that be mitigated? At least in part, first by a state Legislature with the guts to change the tax structure making those who benefit the most pay more for the privilege. Allowing local governments to charge real impact fees would help. And the Board of Supervisors is overdue in rescinding the phony "non-interference" ordinance they passed a few years ago to dodge the responsibility of actually supervising county government, something they are constitutionally charged with doing. It's past time for real budget hearings that are more than just a few days of superficial oversight by those we elect to represent us.
And we could also use a higher class of tax protester. The Pima Association of Taxpayers often presents an intelligent viewpoint and their material is usually accurate. Their leadership performs a valuable function in the debate over the size and type of government we should have. Unfortunately, that's not true of another group with a much larger budget this year, the Pima Property Rights Association. This bunch claims to have spent $25,000 trying to turn out a big crowd for the budget hearings with mailers and television spots. Considering the actual results for this much money -- a couple of hundred folks who wouldn't have been there otherwise, many of them almost incoherent -- they would appear to be at least as inept as the government they whine about.
These same clowns aimed their entire effort at District 3 Supervisor Sharon Bronson and then mistakenly identified her district as "13" on the cover of their mailer. Their argument went downhill from there. They criticized the paving of alleys in South Tucson as wasteful, but that project is part of the 1997 county road bond proposal which Bronson opposed and many of their own cementhead members supported! Their leader and spokesman, Barney Brenner, has a barely rudimentary knowledge of local government. Unlike members of the Pima Association of Taxpayers like Mary Schuh and Ken Marcus, Brenner doesn't seem to have a clue about what he'd cut to prevent the tax increases, saying he wants to keep funding social programs and Kino Hospital. This gang is just another Growth Lobby front group who could really give a rat's ass about taxes and just want to replace Bronson with somebody more friendly to their rezoning requests.
The entire process once more points out the brilliance of John C. Calhoun's division of the population into two basic classes: tax consumers and tax producers. His original example were tariffs that aided the industrial North at the expense of the agricultural South. We have a similar problem today. Those who make up the Growth Lobby and their allies cause the rest of us to pay more and more as we subsidize their role as tax consumers.
Think about that when you're writing that check for your local property tax, and if you believe that you profit from the overall effects of growth, congratulations. You're a tax consumer.
If not -- like most folks -- you're a tax producer, and it's time you took a good look at the politicians who are either cowed by or part of the Growth Lobby. Throw the bums out, particularly at the state level.
Until that happens, plan on paying an ever-higher growth bill.