Installing a water meter turns into a drain on one man's wallet.

Steve Savitch is the CEO, CFO, COO of a Tucson company. He also is the janitor, troubleshooter and director of government relations.

So when Savitch, a 30-year finish carpenter, planned an addition to his Vista del Monte neighborhood home, he didn't turn to some high-ticket consulting engineer or a City Hall fixer. He personally delivered his plans downtown.

And that's when his problems, an illustrative microcosm of city infill projects, began.

Savitch was told in August 2002 that he could increase the size of his East Glenn Street lot with an easy acquisition of an arcing sliver of city right of way. It could be done, Savitch was told, within three months.

But then he needed not one, but two surveys. He finally was able to write a check for the extra property and had the deed--one year later.

Then came hooking the 955-square-foot addition to the water line. Tucson Water reps first told Savitch that he would not have to sweat over a new meter. That also changed, so Savitch prepared to upgrade from a 5/8-inch meter to a 1-inch meter.

The new meter means a capacity at 2.5 times that of the 5/8-inch meter--but the real number that mattered to Savitch was the $4,016 Tucson Water fee.

That sticker shock prompted the energetic and generally positive Savitch to dial Tucson Water. Yep, came the answer: The $4K bill for the new meter and hookup, that included a cut in the street and repaving, was correct.

"That's more than twice what that costs," Savitch said, drawing on his experience and connections as someone who maintains a contractor's license.

Savitch got bounced among three Tucson Water officials, who offered conflicting information, until they finally referred him to the City Council, which sets fees and rates, typically without crimping the utility's revenue flow.

Savitch went to the mayor's office. "Since the prices were set by mayor and council, I thought someone in the mayor's office would be able to explain to me how the price was set."

That, in the case of Republican Mayor Bob Walkup and his staff, was apparently too much to ask.

Savitch returned home to a phone message that he should re-check his construction plans. Something in the plans, he was told, must be driving the cost. He checked, and had the plans reviewed by two industry pros. When Savitch called again, he was ping-ponged between Tucson Water and Development Services.

And then Savitch landed in the court of Jeff Sales, a former television guy (KOLD Channel 13) who was selected by Walkup and his advisers this year to shore up the executive office at $52,335 annually.

Sales offered an eerie explanation.

"He told me there 'could be hidden fees,'" Savitch recalled.

Hidden fees?

"There are no hidden fees," said Mitch Basefsky, publicist for Tucson Water and the utility director, Dave Modeer. "They are all published. What he is paying is a portion of the city equity fee and the difference between the costs of meters, plus the cut and pave."

Much of the Tucson Water fees are included on the department's Web site. Savitch's home addition straddled action by the City Council to jack up water hook-up fees: Called system equity fees, the new rates became effective Aug. 11.

Savitch had the $4,000-plus bill cut, primarily because an upgrade of an existing 5/8-inch meter is discounted by $1,416 to $2,124.

Sales was out ill, according to the mayor's office, and unable to respond for this story.

Savitch, who moved from New York in 1968 to finish high school at Palo Verde, said that Sales was not moved by the issue.

"He was not happy with the fact that I am not sufficiently impressed by the fact that he works for the mayor," Savitch said. "And as far as the mayor goes, I was neither here nor there for the guy. But based on what I saw, I probably would not be for him."

As of deadline (there) on Nov. 3, Savitch had not received a response to the letter he sent Walkup on Oct. 6. The return receipt shows that the mayor's office signed for the letter on Oct. 8.

Savitch offered praise for staff in Development Services and the staff of his City Council representative, Carol West, the Ward 2 Democrat. But he also was left dumbfounded by a representative of City Manager James Keene, who simultaneously shrugged off Savitch's issue and sought understanding by uttering that those with whom he was dealing are just "underpaid bureaucrats."

"Nobody told them they had to have those jobs," Savitch said. "They are well-paid and have benefits."

Savitch sees his situation as an alarm for city officials both in terms of an inequitable "equity system" and as a form of government-sanctioned economic class discrimination. The city equity fees are not based on the value of the property or improvement. Savitch's property, for example, is on the tax rolls for less than $65,000. The owner of a $1 million home would pay the same fee for an addition.

"He's going to pay the same fee I do," Savitch said. "But his return is going to be much greater."

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