County Accounting

With A Handful Of Smart Maneuvers, The Pima County Board Of Supervisors Managed To Trim This Year's Proposed Budget. But Taxes Are Still On The Rise.

POISED TO PASS one of the biggest tax increases in Pima County history after seven hours of verbal abuse from tax protesters, the five members of the Board of Supervisors took a final recess before the vote.

Democrat Dan Eckstrom, the author of the plan that reduced the original tax increase by more than half, asked County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to warm up his calculator to translate the spending cuts and shifts into taxes.

Eckstrom then briefed the daily reporters and a few of the remaining taxpayers on his plan. Eckstrom's fellow Democrats, Raul Grijalva and Sharon Bronson, scurried for last-minute advice. Republican Ray Carroll glowered. And Republican Mike Boyd remained seated at the dais looking oddly serene, perhaps in the knowledge that, unlike his colleagues, he would leave after the tax vote and miss the rest of a substantial regular agenda.

When they reconvened, supervisors heard Huckelberry explain that the moves would trim spending from a proposed $808 million to $779 million -- still a 4 percent increase, totaling $32 million, over the $747 million budget that carried the county through the 1998-99 fiscal year that ended June 30 with the county $60 million in debt.

Property taxes, projected just three weeks earlier to jump by more than 18 percent, were instead contained. The 8 percent increase, because of tax limits in state law, will be a hit on the owners of all property in the county, with the exception of homeowners in the sprawling Tucson Unified School District and the tiny Empire Elementary School District. For the owner of a $100,000 home in the county's 14 other school districts, the increase will mean $31 more for Pima County. Owners of business and other properties will pay the full increase, regardless of the school district. So for the owner of a $100,000 business property, the increase will mean nearly $80 more in county taxes.

As Huckelberry reeled off what was spun as good news, Grijalva waved a reporter to the corner of the dais.

"It's like Dan said, 'This will be as smooth as menudo,' " Grijalva said.

Smooth enough for one of the Board's harshest -- if newest -- critics former City Councilman Emmett "Bucky" McLoughlin.

McLoughlin, who sliced through portions of the county budget in two public hearings, let out a big cheer as Eckstrom ordered his series of cuts and transfers.

But Eckstrom's clincher in a plan that was part true spending cut and part creative accounting was his admonition to Huckelberry to keep money away from bureaucrats.

"We can't let the bureaucrats play with that," Eckstrom said to laughs and a rousing cheer from the couple dozen tax protesters who had stuck out the long meeting.

But protesters, drawn by the calls and 50,000 pieces of mail sent out by the Pima County Property Owners Association, are not going away.

"It was a sham," said Barney Brenner, a group leader and owner of an import parts business. "It was a choreographed plan. They were ready to roll. They did their song and dance and they rolled. But I'd like to think that we had something to do with the reduction. Had the hundreds of people not shown up, it would have been much worse."

WHAT ECKSTROM DID was far from unusual. He has typically bailed out Boards that are paralyzed by timidity or stupidity -- even while he was in the minority during Republican Ed Moore's reign -- to set budgets and taxes.

Taxpayers may have a hard time figuring the exact results until they get their bills soon after Labor Day, although the tax end of the Board's business was clear: A 31.3 cent increase in the county's primary property tax rate, used to fund daily operations, bringing the total to a record $4.07 per $100 of assessed valuation. That's $407 for the owner of a $100,000 home and $1,017 for the owner of a $100,000 business.

But supervisors, in rehearsed teamwork, also cut portions of the three other tax rates under their control. Secondary taxes, used to repay the luxury-list bonds voters approved in 1997, were trimmed by Bronson by 3 cents per $100 to 93.5 cents per $100 of assessed value. The slight cut is possible because of the increase in county tax collections resulting from increased assessments and new construction.

Even Grijalva was given a role in the tax cutting. He trimmed Library District taxes, which the county uses to pay its $8 million share of the operation of the Tucson-Pima Library System, from 22.24 cents per $100 to 20.24 cents. Though there is no slowing in demand for library books and services, the cut -- $2 for the owner of a $100,000 home -- is painless for the library because of big surplus. Despite a penny drop in library taxes that Moore's Republican Board was able to make in 1993, Grijalva has successfully increased library spending and taxes since he took his seat in District 5 in 1989. Library taxes have increased more than 40 percent since Grijalva, whose wife runs the Sam Lena library branch in South Tucson, began the first of his three terms.

Next, Grijalva cut Flood Control taxes also by 2 cents per $100. The new rate, 30.5 cents per $100, is the lowest since the Flood Control District was created in 1979. Grijalva's move was designed to retaliate against Ray Carroll, the Republican who Grijalva thought was under his control after he plucked Carroll for appointment to the Board to replace the late John Even in 1997. The flood control tax cut, Grijalva said, would reshape the priorities to urban drainage and away from protecting a fairway at Tucson Country Club, where Carroll lives.

Grijalva was slightly off target. The Tanque Verde Creek bank protection, on the north rim of the country club, is part of another project that was approved long before Carroll took office.

Grijalva took another swipe at Carroll while offering a $3 million cut in Kino Community Hospital's $58 million budget for 1999-2000. Kino, in large part because it has failed to bill federal health plans and private insurance providers, has built up a debt exceeding $45 million. Grijalva said that he disagreed with tax protesters' calls to sell the 22-year-old hospital, saying he didn't want to see a "Grubb & Ellis sign" in front of Kino.

Carroll was an agent for the commercial real estate company before his appointment. He has never advocated the sale of the hospital.

Carroll, who voted against the budget and its accompanying tax increase, has angered Grijalva by not supporting a half-cent sales tax that could raise about $48 million a year. Carroll represents tax-sensitive District 4 that includes the eastside and Green Valley. Boyd also joined the opposition to the half-cent sales tax last month because very little of it would be used to reduce property taxes -- $8 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

Bronson, who helped lead successful campaigns against a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements in 1986 and 1990, pushed for a sales tax in the 11th hour. The primary target of the property owners association's direct-mail piece, Bronson responded to some callers to her office.

"Please know that I am committed to providing District 3 residents with the services they need and deserve, while keeping taxes low," Bronson wrote in a July 30 letter to a taxpayer.

Bronson, who supported property tax increases in 1997 and 1998 totalling 18 cents per $100, said the "fairer solution is the adoption of a half-cent sales tax."

At the budget hearing, Bronson successfully pushed for a long-overdue analysis on the public costs of residential and commercial growth. In the July 30 letter, she said she had "reviewed Pima County departmental expenditures and budget requests by line item (and) explored all options available to the Board.... I have exhausted every channel I know to fully inform myself and make the best decision for the citizens of Pima County."

Boyd surprised Carroll last week when he joined the Democrats on the budget and taxes. Two things enticed Boyd. First, Eckstrom specifically included funding for the Mehl Family Park on the south side of River Road near Alvernon Way. The park, opened by the county before being transferred to city control, is back where Boyd wanted it, under the county system. And Boyd also approved of several budget control measures that threaten county department heads, even the 15 that are run by independently elected officials.

Besides cutting Kino spending, the Eckstrom plan also cut transportation spending by $3.5 million and Wastewater Management expenditures by $1.5 million. The Board also shifted $5 million from reserves built up by its unit within the Arizona Long Term Care System, the plan for indigent long-term care patients.

In purely cosmetic moves, the Board also agreed to change the categories of two health system debts totaling $13.4 million and the $750,000 debt at the Rillito Race Track. Rather than strict budgeted repayment, those funds will be listed as operating transfers within the overall county budget.

And the Board stripped $553,000 in excess revenue and expenditure authority in the County Attorney's child support unit. Eckstrom also won approval for a debt and tax reduction fund and to continue the budget stablization fund he designed last year.

THE DEMOCRATS WHO pushed through the tax increase will escape its effect. Moreover, the adopted budget increases spending in individual supervisors' offices to $233,247 this year, up from the budgets that ranged from $228,443 to $228,748 last year.

Grijalva, Eckstrom and Bronson live within high-tax TUSD and, like other TUSD homeowners, will be protected by a once-obscure and now popularly discussed state law that limits a homeowner's primary property tax rate to $10 per $100 of assessed value.

The law, adopted by voters nearly 20 years ago, applies only to residential property. Homeowners such as Bronson who are within TUSD but outside the city would have been nearly a dime short of the $10 limit until this year. Although TUSD's primary rate is scheduled to drop by about 7 cents per $100, the 32-cent county increase, together with a 4.5 cent increase by Pima Community College, pushed TUSD homeowners outside the city beyond the limit.

More than half of the county's homeowners are at the $10 limit courtesy of the county rate of $4.07, Pima College at $1.17; state education assistance at 53 cents; Tucson at 14 cents or South Tucson at 29 cents; and TUSD at $4.56 (the net after the TUSD rate of $7.01 is reduced by 35 percent for homeowners, also according to state law) for a total of $10.46 in Tucson, $10.61 in South Tucson and $10.32 in unincorporated areas of TUSD. The difference, ranging up to $61 for a $100,000 home, is paid by all state taxpayers.

Even with increases in county and Pima College taxes, TUSD homeowners could actually see a decreased tax bill because of the cap and because of an overall drop in secondary taxes.

Taxpayers in the tiny Empire Elementary School District also have the odd benefit from being taxed beyond the state level.

Pima County voters will have a year to evaluate the tax increase before choosing supervisors in the fall of 2000.

"The bottom line," Brenner says, "is that they approved an increase that will hurt their constituents and was not needed."

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