Passing the Buck in Oro Valley

Officials in Pima County's richest area want the county to pay some of its 'discretionary' bills.

Oro Valley is the richest and whitest municipality in Pima County, but its leaders claim that the Pusch Ridge hamlet with a median income of $61,000 is not immune to economic dips and corresponding drops in revenue.

It is comforting, then, for Oro Valley--proud to have begun a new chapter in its 29-year-history by opening its first library--to hand these bills to Pima County:

· $1,748.28 for dinner for library volunteers at Michelangelo's Ristorante Italiano.

· $3,185 for a training junket--the Arizona Library Conference--for six employees.

· $806.46 for embossed bookmarks, also for volunteers, from Thomas Promotions Co., of Tucson.

· $415.47 to Jewell Coffee and Tea for employee coffee.

· $111.83 to Tucson Trophy.

Within Oro Valley's $83.5 million budget for fiscal 2002-03, the Town Council set library spending at $1 million. But the devil has sprung from the details of minor budget categories. By December, just halfway through the fiscal year, the $5,000 office supply budget was doubled as was a $4,000 cap on the slush labeled "miscellaneous other operating expenses."

Mayor Paul Loomis, in a recent message to the nearly 30,000 residents of Oro Valley, noted the town's budget crunch represented a 10 percent drop in spending that was due to "many factors including a weakened national and local economy, the completion of one-time projects during 2001-02 and a decrease in state-shared revenues."

And in recent weeks, the Oro Valley chorus for budget blues included the Arizona Daily Star's Megan Rutherford. Under the headline "Budget woes gumming up the work in OV," she delivered a lamentation for shortfalls and pledges for restraint.

"We're starting to watch our dollars real close," Oro Valley Finance Director David Andrews said in the Feb. 13 story.

Meanwhile, Oro Valley shipped a bill for $73,478 to Pima County for second-quarter library operations, including per tutti mangiare bene a Michelangelo's.

Oro Valley has Pima County's most capable taxpayers. Census figures show that per-capita income in Oro Valley is $31,517, compared to $19,785 for all of Pima County. Median income in Oro Valley is $61,037 compared with $44,446 in Pima County.

Still, Oro Valley can push its library bills to Pima County and have considerably poorer people from Ajo to Arivaca chip in under an agreement that the Town Council made with the county's Board of Supervisors in September. County taxpayers, including property owners in Oro Valley, also contributed $2 million in bond funds toward construction of the library. The split in the operations budget works much like the county's longstanding agreement with Tucson to share costs for the Tucson-Pima Library, which is operated by city employees.

A rare model of city-county consolidation--despite recent contentious exchanges over some city book bills--the agreement survives through a county-wide property tax of 21.24 cents per $100 of assessed value (or $21.24 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home). That tax raises most of the county's share, though the county also has tapped nearly $3 million in reserves for the library. Operating on a $21.3 million budget this year, the Tucson-Pima Library system also pulls in revenue from the Tucson general fund, built with the city's low property tax and from the two cents on every dollar consumers pay in city sales tax.

Oro Valley also has the 2 percent sales tax, but no property tax. And it chose to staff and operate its library, at the northeast corner of La Canada and Naranja Drive, though it remains an affiliate of the Tucson-Pima system.

Open to all county residents, the Oro Valley library operated in the second quarter for $147,820. With scant explanation, it simply requested the county pay half, $73,478.

The cursory probing that revealed the volunteer meal at Michelangelo's--which is outside Oro Valley--raised enough suspicion that county officials kicked back the bill.

Loomis was unaware of the Oro Valley library bills, but vowed to check on them.

"Those expenses that you've described should fall on the Oro Valley side of the agreement and not on the joint operating agreement with the county," Loomis said. "There are going to be expenses that are unique to Oro Valley and should be paid by Oro Valley. We're going to have to look at what are reasonable expenses that should be flowing to the county under the intergovernmental agreement."

After five years of flush budgets--fattened by the state's highest property taxes, increased property values and new construction--Pima County is looking at big deficits on a $1 billion budget and also stands to lose up to $30 million in state funds under state proposals.

"In this era of budget deficits, we need to pay particular attention to discretionary spending," said Chuck Huckelberry, in his 10th year as county administrator and 30th year as a county executive. "This is discretionary spending. When we go out, we go to Pat's Drive In for chili dogs."

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