Sales Pitch

Huckelberry's call for a county half-cent sales-tax increase appears to be DOA

Supervisor Ray Carroll remains firm in his opposition to Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's proposal for a half-cent hike in Pima County's sales tax.

"I'm a no," says Carroll, who blocked a similar proposal in 1997. "I've sat patiently through Chuck's presentation. I owe everybody that. But my position has not changed."

Huckelberry made the pitch for a county-wide half-cent sales tax when he released his proposed $1.463 billion budget last week. He suggests that enacting the half-cent sales tax in October would raise an estimated $55 million that could be used to allow the county to trim property taxes.

Huckelberry says shifting from a property tax to sales tax would give Pima County residents a break, because a portion of the tax will be paid by tourists and the growing number of people who are moving to the edges of neighboring counties, but using Pima County's roads and services.

"They're using our streets; they're dumping in our landfills; they're using our criminal justice as they drive and shop and do whatever they do in Pima County, but they pay zero property tax," he says.

Huckelberry estimates that between 15 and 25 percent of sales-tax dollars are paid by noncounty residents. "It will grow as these peripheral communities start to populate," he adds.

Enacting the sales tax requires a unanimous vote from the Board of Supervisors--and Carroll, a Republican whose District 4 includes the east side of Tucson, Green Valley and the Rincon Valley, remains unconvinced.

"A sales tax is a regressive tax," Carroll says. "It hurts the poor. One of our mandates is to look out for that population."

Carroll is the lone holdout against the sales tax, with his four colleagues--Democrats Ramon Valadez, Sharon Bronson and Richard Elias, and Republican Ann Day--agreeing with Huckelberry's argument that a sales tax would allow the county to collect taxes from people outside of Pima County.

"It makes good financial sense for the people who live here," Day says. "Growth is exploding on all our boundaries, and all of those people come into Pima County and use our service. You're having those people contributing to our tax base."

Valadez points out that groceries and medicine are exempt from the sales tax, which reduces its regressive impact. And while he's "not crazy" about the sales-tax hike, "we are using, dollar-for-dollar, whatever is raised through the half-cent sales tax to reduce the burden on our homeowners and small businesses."

Even without the sales tax, Huckelberry's budget does trim property-tax rates in an attempt to compensate for rising property values. Primary tax rates would decline 24 cents per $100 of assessed valuation--which means the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $720.40 rather than $768.40.

But because that typical $200,000 home was worth less than $200,000 during the last tax cycle, homeowners aren't likely to see a reduction in the their actual property-tax bill. Huckelberry hopes that, on average, the tax impact will be neutral, but because property values fluctuate from home to home, it's impossible to guarantee that's the case.

"Everybody's different," Huckelberry says.

Huckelberry's plan increases spending by nearly $184 million from this year's budget. Approximately $79 million of that is in the county's capital budget used for construction. This year's big-ticket items include a new combined justice and municipal courthouse, and a radio communications system for the Sheriff's Department.

The major increases in the general-fund spending--which is the portion of the county budget that supervisors control--include an additional $12 million to cover financial shortfalls at Kino Community Hospital, $11 million in raises for employees and roughly $4 million to cover requests from various county departments, primarily the criminal-justice system.

Bronson says that while she hasn't examined the budget in great detail yet, she generally supports Huckelberry's spending proposals.

"I think it's a fairly lean budget at this point," Bronson says. "We'll be looking at it to see if there are other things we can do without reducing the services that the folks in Pima County and District 3 want to see. Obviously, we want to invest in libraries and parks."

She's also supportive of the Sheriff's Department plan for a border-crime unit.

"I'm the one with all the border with Mexico," Bronson says. "It's pretty scary out there for some folks."

Elias agrees that the budget proposal is essentially sound, although he'd like to see the county increase funding for social-service nonprofits that are losing federal support.

Supervisors will begin budget hearings this month and will approve a final budget in June.

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