Juggling the Books

Pima County's budget includes a big increase in library spending

When the Pima County Board of Supervisors agreed to take over the library system from the city of Tucson last year, it was no secret that county property taxes would have to increase to make up for the funding that the city would no longer provide.

But Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's proposed $1.28 billion budget, released late last month, not only raises property taxes to make up for the drop in city funding; it also increases overall library spending by roughly $10 million annually.

To pay for the boost in spending, Huckelberry wants to increase library-district property taxes by 11 cents per $100 of assessed value. That will cost a taxpayer whose home is valued at $150,000 an extra $16.50 a year, raising the total library-tax bill to roughly $55.

But the actual increase for most property owners will be higher, because that calculation doesn't take into account increased property values, which vary from home to home and form the basis by which property taxes are figured.

In the deal struck last year between the City Council and the Board of Supervisors, the city was supposed to decrease its $10 million contribution to the library budget by $2 million a year during a five-year period, freeing up dollars in the city's general fund for other services.

The county was supposed to increase funding to compensate for declining city funding. But Huckelberry has used the transition to propose that overall library spending be increased from roughly $24 million this fiscal year to $34.4 million in the fiscal year that begins in July.

He says the spending hike is necessary, because during the transition, "we know there will be unanticipated expenses. There always are, and so we had better have a fairly healthy reserve fund in the library."

In addition to current expenses, Huckelberry points out that two new libraries--a branch at the Quincie Douglas Neighborhood Center and the Martha Cooper Branch Library near Speedway and Columbus boulevards--are opening, increasing the cost of running the system.

District 5 Democrat Richard Elias, chair of the Board of Supervisors, sees merit in the library increase.

"We've been significantly behind on library spending for a community of our size, and now we're looking at it from a county perspective," says Elias, who says the additional dollars will help expand the libraries' staff and collections.

Democrat Sharon Bronson, who represents District 3, also supports the increase. "Most of it is going to be for new services and new libraries," she says.

Republican Ann Day of District 1, who is generally pleased with Huckelberry's budget proposal, says the increase in library spending is necessary "if we want to bring new libraries on and provide good library services."

The hike in library taxes comes as Huckelberry is attempting to reduce primary property-tax rates to compensate for increased property values. He wants to drop the county's primary rate by 23 cents, bringing the rate to $3.84 per $100 in assessed valuation, which will mean a $576.30 tax bill for a home worth $150,000, according to Tom Burke, Pima County finance director.

Huckelberry says the 5.6 percent cut in the tax rate will balance the 5.4 percent appreciation in overall property values within the county. The decrease will bring the county's primary tax rate to the lowest it has been in eight years.

"In theory, we've given back the appreciation of the tax base," he says, while using additional revenue from new construction to pay for additional law-enforcement resources, provide raises for county employees, retire lingering debts and attend to other spending priorities.

But in reality, Huckelberry concedes the impact on individual property taxpayers will vary from property to property, depending on how much their value has increased. "Every situation is going to be different," he says.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the county is only one taxing jurisdiction in Pima County, accounting for somewhere between 25 percent and 33 percent of the typical homeowner's property-tax bill. Other jurisdictions--such as school districts, Pima Community College, the city of Tucson and fire districts--make up the balance.

It's particularly tough for homeowners who live in the Tucson Unified School District area, because their combined property-tax rates are now so high that the state picks up a portion of the bill. Unless other jurisdictions, including TUSD, also cut back significantly on their tax rates, then the beneficiary of the county's cut might not be homeowners--but the state general fund.

To make matters worse for those TUSD homeowners: Because library taxes are considered secondary property taxes, which fall outside of the portion of the tax bill covered by the state, they'll see their property taxes climbing even before increased property values are considered in the equation. And secondary taxes are determined by a home's full cash value, which is generally higher than the limited value used to determine primary property taxes.

TUSD officials say they hope to cut tax rates, but they can't project what will happen to the rates until the Arizona Legislature passes a budget and lets them know how much money they can expect from the state.

Huckelberry points out that other jurisdictions remain outside his control.

"We're responsible for our budget, and we can't be responsible for everybody's else's budget," says Huckelberry, "even though we get blamed for everybody else's."

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