Splitsville On The Santa Cruz

Today's Breakaway Burgs Could Learn From The Early Tribulations Of South Tucson.

TUCSON CITY OFFICIALS fought viciously to block the little suburban community's efforts to become a municipality. The pols, and the editors of The Arizona Daily Star, did everything they could to persuade residents of the area not to incorporate. "We are all in this together and it will just result in higher taxes if you become a town," were their recurring themes. But those pleas were unsuccessful. Eventually, the town succeeded at incorporating.

Tucson, however, didn't let up on its opposition to the town's existence. It politically harassed the community and dragged the issue into court, where finally the new town was disincorporated.

This isn't the history of Casas Adobes or Tortolita since 1997. It is the story of South Tucson's struggle for survival against enormous odds in the late 1930s, and its final victory 60 years ago this month.

A 1933 break in the sewer line serving the Veterans Administration Hospital on south Sixth Avenue was the justification for Tucson's first unsuccessful attempt to annex a narrow strip of land south of the city limits at 25th Street. But this effort met vigorous opposition from 290 residents and business owners of the area, who objected to the city's high taxes and strict building codes.

The owners of the more than one dozen tourist courts that lined South Sixth Avenue--such as the Sunset Villa, the Close-In, and the Linger Longer--were especially opposed to annexation. They didn't want to pay Tucson's high license fee for operating a business. Faced with this opposition, the annexation idea was soon dropped.

But Tucson Mayor Henry Jaastad, spurred on by the editors of the morning newspaper, tried once more in 1935. This time a majority of the Tucson City Council rebuffed the proposal, arguing that it would cost more to provide municipal services to the area than incorporation would generate in tax revenues.

That didn't stop Jaastad, who pushed annexation once again in 1936 when he finally appeared to have the necessary council votes. The mayor was insistent that Tucson, with 33,000 people living in about 7 square miles, had to grow through annexations. Faced with the prospect of becoming part of Tucson, 69 suburbanites quickly signed a petition asking for an incorporation election to be held for the community of "South Tucson." The proposed town was four blocks wide and one mile long and had fewer than 1,000 people living within its borders. It had only one paved street and lacked many other city services, but most of its residents wanted no part of being annexed into Tucson.

During the campaign leading up to the incorporation election, supporters boldly promised that "the new city of South Tucson will have no program of building city halls, financing fire departments, nor even paying a police force." Instead, a group of volunteers was proposed to operate the municipal government.

The Arizona Daily Star was vehement in its opposition to the idea of incorporating the little community, and still pushed the annexation proposal. It wrote, "To imagine that the necessary municipal services can be secured by free offers or voluntary service is thinking that disregards reality. ... A vote to incorporate will be a backward step for both Tucson and this growing district. Let the voters take the long view, rather than the short view, and save themselves much worry and expense, and reap advantages that they cannot have if they become a separate municipality."

Many residents of the area, however, did not want to pay the higher taxes that would come with being a part of Tucson. As one wrote, "Unless the city of Tucson can give us positive assurance that annexation will mean lower taxes, we south siders will fight this land-grabbing scheme tooth and nail."

BEFORE THE ELECTION, rumors spread that Tucson would turn the water off in the new community if it voted to incorporate. Despite that threat, on August 10, 1936, the majority of voters in South Tucson supported creation of the new town.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors immediately appointed a five-man town council, which went about setting up a local government. Ignoring the earlier campaign promises, both a town clerk and town marshal were quickly hired, and a volunteer fire department was formed.

The lack of fire-fighting equipment was a major concern in the small community, and within a few months Whit Miller, the volunteer fire chief, was pleading for assistance. He told the council, "We had six fires in the past week. ...The only way we have of putting them out is to use a garden hose and stomp with our feet, and that gets kind of tiresome, the stomping I mean."

Eventually, the Town Council came up with the money for a new fire truck and a grand celebration marked its arrival in South Tucson. The day it appeared, it "was paraded up and down Sixth Avenue while the citizenry admired, the fire department personnel bulged with pride, and visitors looked on in awe."

But the new truck wasn't that useful, because fire hydrants were in short supply. The City of Tucson was the only agency that could install more hydrants because it owned and operated the water service in the community. But Tucson wasn't cooperating.

So, as fire chief Miller summarized, "At present the new fire truck has a 300-gallon booster tank, and at a recent fire the 300 gallons of water in it were quickly used up, the water flowing out of the fire-hose nozzle faster than a garden hose could pour it into the booster tank. This situation ... necessitated the substitution of garden hose for actual firefighting (equipment) while the truck was driven on a nocturnal hunt for more water for its booster tank." Then Chief Miller concluded, "It looks pretty silly to be fighting a fire with garden hose while your truck traipses around town looking for water."

In addition to ignoring its new neighbor's need for more fire hydrants, Tucson city officials also took the unusual step of imposing their own building codes within South Tucson. They required the town's 205 water customers to obtain a Tucson building permit before they could construct anything. This requirement continued even after the South Tucson Town Council adopted its own building codes and hired its own inspectors. The regulations were needed to insure, as one Tucson elected official put it, "the construction of proper building in an area which, someday, may become a part of the city."

The necessity for dual inspections and payment of two building permit fees infuriated South Tucson's leaders. They decided to fight back by imposing a $500 annual franchise fee on Tucson Water and foolishly said that if it wasn't paid, "We'll shut the water off."

The tense situation between the municipalities couldn't last. At a joint meeting of the two councils held in January of 1938, South Tucson Mayor Sam Kipnis talked about "the hardships ... imposed on individuals desiring to build in South Tucson in being required to pay for two inspections."

Despite Kipnis' arguments, the Tucson City Council directed that building inspections continue in South Tucson while voting not to pay the franchise fee. In addition, it unanimously agreed to notify water customers in South Tucson that service would be discontinued within 120 days. At the end of the meeting, Mayor Kipnis noted that instead of discussing the dual inspection requirement, "The matter more or less drifted to the question as to why the territory comprising South Tucson had not come into the City of Tucson."

A few days later, petitions to disincorporate South Tucson appeared in the community. Within two weeks, 258 signatures had been submitted to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, which accepted them at a two-minute meeting and immediately dissolved the town. Thirty minutes later, at a special meeting, the Tucson City Council voted to annex South Tucson. As one supporter of the embattled community said, "We know the set-up; the city and the supervisors are working together."

Instead of going quietly, however, the South Tucson Town Council directed its attorney, Harry Juliani, to protest the disincorporation in court. Juliani tried, arguing that not enough valid petition signatures had been submitted and that "The Supervisors did not check the petition ... but 'railroaded' it through." Despite those arguments, his efforts failed and the town was ordered dissolved. But after exhausting all his legal options, Juliani pointed out to the Town Council there was no reason the town couldn't ask for a second incorporation election.

At the same time, Tucson's attempt to annex South Tucson had run into a major roadblock. The Arizona Supreme Court had thrown out the usual method of annexation, which at that time was done through an action in Superior Court. Instead, property owners in South Tucson would have to sign a petition asking to become a part of Tucson, a much more difficult and time-consuming process.

Thus, in late 1938, there was a race for petition signatures in South Tucson, one seeking to have the community annexed to its bigger neighbor, the other asking for another incorporation election. Supporters of incorporation turned in their signatures to Pima County officials first, but the county didn't act on the request. Less than two weeks later, backers of annexation asked the City of Tucson to bring most of South Tucson within its borders, and the City Council immediately accepted the petition. Based on that, the Board of Supervisors refused to approve the reincorporation effort.

Juliani, however, was able to obtain a court order requiring an incorporation election to be held. On March 27, 1939, South Tucson voters went to the polls for the second time in three years to decide if they wished to incorporate.

Before they did, The Arizona Daily Star pointed out that the backers of the original town had promised no taxes, but then imposed a property tax and business license fees. Residents had been told there would be no paid staff, but of course people had been hired to fill needed jobs. What, the Star asked, were the advantages of living in South Tucson except for those few who "get some personal benefits at the expense of the community"?

Two days prior to the balloting, South Tucson's treasured fire truck, with only 731 miles showing on its odometer, was sent back to its manufacturer. The trustee appointed to wrap up the financial dealings of the original town had bartered it for a cash payment, cruelly ignoring the possibility that the town might be incorporated again.

At the election, by a margin of 70 to 63, the voters of South Tucson did just that.

ACCORDING TO THE next morning's Arizona Daily Star, "There was great jollification among the townspeople as the word spread a few minutes after the count was completed at 7 p.m., that the breath of life had been blown back into the corpse, and a number of the burghers took to their automobiles to execute an impromptu parade. After a few sashays up and down South Sixth Avenue, main artery of the town, the celebrators descended on downtown Tucson, blaring their automobile horns and shouting jubilee."

After the election, the town was in the position of being incorporated, but also being a part of Tucson at the same time. It would take 16 months for the courts to straighten out the messy situation. At one time, local Superior Court Judge William Hall tried to negotiate a settlement between the two sides. As the Star correctly pointed out, "Should Judge Hall's proposal meet with success, he should rank as a shoo-in for next year's Nobel peace prize." But the warring sides couldn't agree, and the settlement idea went nowhere.

While the issues of incorporation vs. annexation were being legally fought and Tucson initially appeared to have the upper hand, the city quietly dropped its requirements for people living outside its borders to obtain Tucson building permits. The City Council decided the regulation was too much of a deterrent to new construction.

At the same time, Tucson and Pima County officials kept up their relentless attacks on the small town. At one point, Juliani told the Board of Supervisors, "We talk about democracy, Fascism and Communism... but we believe in the democratic form of government. If our officials do their duty right, we have nothing to fear. When you don't, you tear down the government. Whether you believe in South Tucson has nothing to do with it; those people out there have the right to self-determination."

In a ruling that stunned both City officials and The Arizona Daily Star, Juliani was eventually able to persuade the Arizona Supreme Court that the incorporation effort, since it had submitted its petition first, took precedence over annexation. With that ruling, it appeared that South Tucson was about to go back into business.

But even that didn't happen without a fight. The Pima County Board of Supervisors originally appointed three opponents of incorporation to the new five-member Town Council. Only after Juliani vehemently objected did they change their minds, and on August 6, 1940 named three supporters and two opponents to the new council. With that, after seven years of struggle by the people of South Tucson to avoid annexation while becoming a new town, their efforts had finally succeeded.

THE 1940s SAW several improvements made in the community, including the installation of fire hydrants and the construction of a town hall. Early in the 1950s the town grew through annexation to become almost one square mile in size. Then, in 1956, South Tucson officials began discussing the possibility of growing once more, this time by annexing three square miles of land to the south and east.

That prospect terrified City of Tucson leaders. If South Tucson were successful, it would prevent the city from annexing large parcels of industrial land in the same area. As Tucson Mayor Don Hummel put it, "The effect of this would be to put the town of South Tucson between [the City of Tucson] and all the industrial sites ... that are available in the area. ... It was important that we not allow the southward expansion [of the city] to be interrupted."

Thus, at a "surprise meeting," the Tucson City Council voted to annex a large area along its southern border, completely encircling its little neighbor. The people of South Tucson had been a thorn in the side of Tucson officials for over 20 years, but with the completion of this annexation, the small town was not going to be allowed to fester and swell any more.

In 1961 the Arizona State Legislature adopted a law that required communities wanting to incorporate to first obtain permission from every existing municipality within six miles of their proposed borders. Tucson's refusal to grant its approval in 1997 is the reason Tortolita and Casas Adobes may never become incorporated. Of course, if that law had existed 60 years ago, South Tucson would never have been allowed to exist, either.

The Tucson Corral of the Westerners has recently published a more detailed account of South Tucson's efforts to incorporate. Written by Dave Devine and titled Struggle for Survival: The South Tucson Story, this 20-page monograph may be obtained by sending a check for $5, made payable to Tucson Corral of the Westerners, to Bill White, 3936 E. Guaymas Place, Tucson, AZ 85711-1925.
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