Shell-City Game

Incorporating Casas Adobes could mean reducing taxes for the rest of us.

It began ominously enough eight years ago as Ed Moore's dream.

And now it will be up to voters and others in Casas Adobes, where incorporation was started in 1997 only to be stopped later in court, and Green Valley, where voters have rejected incorporation four times, to decide if Moore was all wet.

The answer lies in more than the votes to be cast on March 13 in Casas Adobes, the northwest and foothills community of 70,000, and in Green Valley, the retirement hamlet south of Tucson. If successful, incorporation pushers will also have to prove to be able leaders, to show that Moore's theory on tax relief through incorporation can be reality.

Then a Republican and in the early stages of his third and final term on the Board of Supervisors, Moore had already bludgeoned Pima County government with his costly reorganization and raw political purges when he developed a crafty idea to screw the state out of the millions of dollars the state had been screwing out of Pima County taxpayers for decades.

Moore was not alone in frustration and anger that the taxes Pima County residents paid at the gas pump, on our paychecks, and on all purchases except medicine and groceries was nearly on a one-way track to Phoenix. State law cut the amounts governments in Pima County got back to fractions while the bulk was handed out to Maricopa County, where nine residents of out of every ten live in a city. Distribution formulas greatly favor cities and towns, and Pima County's efforts, in both court and the Legislature, were having only slight impact.

So Moore pushed for an incorporated donut around Tucson and in rural Pima County. The "shell city" would be a city in name only, draw fat checks from the state in shared revenues, and spend on a bare-bones budget for services contracted through the county or private enterprise. Moore got support from an influential panel, the county's tax-equity committee. But then in classic Moore style, he lost credibility with unproven and off-base claims. For instance, he repeatedly said--even at tax-suspicious Green Valley--in 1993 that contract cities in California such as Lakewood had no employees. Zero. A reporter soon found out that Lakewood had a city manager and 169 other employees in its then-$31 million budget, and that 116 other contract cities in California had various levels of bureaucracy.

Though exaggerated, Moore's campaign struck a nerve. The theory was that incorporation would provide relief for the county budget and lessen the county tax burden, then and now more than $500 a year for the owner of a home assessed at $100,000. And Sahuarita, then sparse but now growing between Green Valley and Tucson, bit and approved incorporation by a 14-vote margin in 1994. After more than a year as a dependent county stepchild, Sahuarita is moving on its own.

Sahuarita has given new drive to the incorporation effort in Green Valley, where county taxes have long supported near-urban levels of service in police, transportation and recreation. Local control and fear of Sahuarita dominance could well lead to a reversal of incorporation fortunes for the first time since 1977, when Green Valley rejected becoming a city by a 2-1 margin. The spread was greater, 3-1, in 1989. And in 1994--the same year that voters in Vail rejected town status--voters in Green Valley again said no by 2 to 1. Not one of Green Valley's 13 precincts supported the city measure.

In Casas Adobes, voters narrowly approved incorporation in 1997 at the same time voters east--in the Santa Catalina foothills--rejected a similar proposal by more than 2-1. There are 28,000 voters in Casas Adobes. Nearly 44 percent of them turned out to vote in 1997, with incorporation passing by just 297 votes out of 12,239 ballots cast, the election canvass shows. The incorporation was later thrown out in court, but the issue just won't stay off the ballot.

Moore and his neighbors in the southwest tip of Casas Adobes were mixed in with a neighboring precinct. Combined, the total at that polling place in 1997 opposed incorporation by a nearly 9-point margin, according to the canvass. Moore has said he is taking a back seat in this new campaign, a vow he made even while hopping on the John C. Scott radio show recently to counter some statements made by Phil Richardson, a retiree who is heading up the opposition group Residents Against Taxes Adobes.

Mary Schuh, the persistent Moore and county government critic, is opposing the incorporation drive independently. She has purchased radio time and, in her inimitable style, likens incorporation to an unprepared mother having a child. Her husband, Jim, is out on Orange Grove Road most mornings waving to motorists as they pass his tall anti-incorporation signs.

Schuh, elected to the Amphi Public Schools' board 10 months ago, is not buying Moore's "back seat" status, just as she is not buying the prospective city's budget.

"They keep looking for the turnip truck to see who fell off," Schuh said. "They assume the people are stupid. They are not."

Voters in Schuh's south Casas Adobes precinct, along Roller Coaster Road, approved the incorporation in 1997, and she served on what was called the Village's first council.

Don Burtchin was the mayor then. He is not surprised that Schuh is opposed, saying "Mary is against everything," but he is surprised that she doubts the potential budget figures based on $21 million in state revenues from sales tax, gas tax, income tax and auto license fees.

"She knows better," Burtchin said from a command post that is his kitchen. "She put together the budget last time and it worked."

Counters Schuh: "It was a fantasy budget with no money. It didn't mean anything."

Burtchin, a retired U.S. Navy weather forecaster who has lived in Casas Adobes for 20 years, also is retired from the county's Department of Environmental Quality, where he was an environmental planning manager working on air quality. He says Schuh is not giving herself enough credit for the budget she developed four years ago.

The budget, based on the $21 million Casas Adobes would get--$300 for each of 70,000 residents--would provide enough in contracted services with a surplus of about $6 million, he said.

Burtchin, also the unpaid chairman of the county Parks and Recreation Commission, and his incorporation group that includes former state Sen. Scott Alexander have organized five forums to get the word out, put up campaign signs and done a tabloid information piece.

Opponents, he says, are pressing nothing but fear and phony comparisons to other cities. Richardson, a retired radio man who has trouble turning off his radio bombast voice, has been pointing to Yuma and Sierra Vista for comparisons. Both are several times the area of 25-square-mile Casas Adobes. That, and the suggestion by Richardson that Casas Adobes residents would each have to come up with an extra $1,000 a year to support the new city, has left Burtchin to classify opposing rhetoric as "out and out deception."

It has been a credibility strain at some points, such as when one of Richardson's partners told the Arizona Daily Star's neighborly Northwest section that he wouldn't want to pay for the government services he now gets from the county for free. Free? Records show that of the $1,498.72 Richardson is paying in property taxes this year on his $115,778 home, more than $643 is for county services.

Other taxes actually are not a given. Neighboring Oro Valley and Marana, both happy to annex lucrative commercial strips in Casas Adobes, have 2-percent sales taxes, as do Tucson and Sahuarita; but the bordering towns have no property tax as Tucson does. Moreover, taxes are an issue to be decided by voters if and when Casas Adobes incorporates.

Also left to residents is the form of government, whether to adopt a charter to further provide independence, and what services will be needed, such as more police than the 30 sheriff's deputies assigned to the Casas Adobes area now.

"Folks, I'm retired," Burtchin reminds his critics. "If I thought this was going to cost me $1,000 each for me and my wife, I'd be out of here."

What it may provide is money back from what Casas Adobes pays to the state. And a reduced burden for other county taxpayers--including those in Tucson's central neighborhoods--in county taxes and spending.

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