Money Grab

A city-county fight over water-line relocation expenses could mean an increase in your water bill

Pima County officials claim the city of Tucson owes the county millions of dollars in water-line relocation expenses, a charge City Hall ardently denies. Could this disagreement lead to discord in the harmonious regional cooperation which has recently been enjoyed by the two governments?

In a December report, Assistant County Administrator Nanette Slusser outlined the numerous outstanding bills she believes the city of Tucson is responsible for. These expenses were a result of Tucson Water lines being relocated from the path of county road-improvement projects.

The list includes $2.3 million in identified delinquent charges, some dating back as far as 2004. Another $1.8 million in disputed bills are also included.

"That's inaccurate," declares Assistant City Manager Karen Masbruch. "We're not delinquent. The county is asking for 100 percent payment, but there's nothing in the agreement about that. We only pay what the agreement stipulates, and that's 50 percent of the hard costs of a project."

The agreement Masbruch refers to was first approved in 1979 and has been modified several times since. It calls for Pima County to pay 50 percent of the actual cost of relocating Tucson Water lines from the route of county road-improvement projects.

Under the agreement, design, traffic control, inspection and other "soft" costs aren't included. Based on that, Slusser estimates the city currently only pays 38 percent of the total.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry diplomatically sees both sides of the argument. Believing the current agreement must be amended, he fears that if it isn't changed, there could be repercussions for road-building projects dating back as far as those approved by the voters a decade ago. If the city refuses to amend the agreement, Huckelberry warns, "It puts in question the implementation of the 1997 road-bond projects both inside and outside the city limits."

The existing 50-50 split between the city and county is unique, with all other utility companies paying the full cost of moving their lines. Tucson Water even pays 100 percent of the water-line relocation expenses caused by road-widening projects managed by the city's own Transportation Department.

"The policy was inequitable then (1979) and remains so today," Huckelberry wrote the Board of Supervisors in a recent memo. "We simply want to be treated the same as everyone else."

He believes the county has used $17 million in transportation funds to pay for these water-line relocations in the past, and Slusser thinks the county could pay an additional $43 million during the next 12 years, including projects of the Regional Transportation Authority.

Masbruch observes: "I don't know where those $14 and $43 million figures came from. We're looking at it now and by the end of February will have a fairly detailed analysis."

Concerned about how this lack of compensation on the city's part could impact county road-building efforts, Huckelberry and Slusser hope the agreement is modified so that the city pays 100 percent.

"There's not enough money for transportation projects," Slusser insists.

If the city does assume 100 percent of the costs, Slusser suggests Tucson Water rates could be raised to cover the added expense. "There's a possibility to get a (water) rate increase," she says, noting the same isn't true for transportation funding.

"They should be built into the (water) rates," Slusser adds. "It's a cost of their doing business."

That possibility worries Nancy Rast. A Tucson Water customer who lives in unincorporated Pima County, she calls the idea of raising rates to pay for water-line relocations caused by road widening projects "illegal and unfair."

"I have no way of voting to protest this unfair taxation," Rast says. "If they put this tax on our water bills without authority, what stops them from doing it again (for something else)? It will set a precedent."

City resident Ken O'Day has another objection to the idea: "It would have been nice to know about this before the RTA vote last year, so people could have taken it into consideration.

"This is just another attempt to shift the cost of transportation onto other sources," says O'Day, a vocal critic of the RTA. "Why didn't the city and county ensure during the RTA process there would be enough money" to build the approved roadway projects?

While negotiations have been going on for the last three years, they haven't reached a resolution. In the meantime, Masbruch indicates raising water rates isn't the only way for the city to pay the extra amount.

When asked whether gas-tax money intended for building roads could be used to reimburse the county, Masbruch replies: "I think all options will be reviewed. ... Where the funds come from is not fixed. It's the mayor and City Council's call."

But if an agreement isn't reached, Slusser has proposed a step Pima County could take to force the issue. In her report, she recommends that permits for placing new utility lines in county right of ways could be denied "for any utilities with unpaid balances over 60 days."

Huckelberry hopes this and several other related issues can be resolved by April. But if that doesn't happen, he says the Board of Supervisors would be given a range of options about how they could proceed.

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