Taxes bite

Alvina Gutierrez watches the tax on her 40-year-old home go up and up and wonders where it will all end.

Democrats who control the Board of Supervisors were busy congratulating themselves on a typically uncomfortable day in August, saluting a promised tax cut, preserving funding to a parade of outside agencies and handing out $6.5 million in raises to Pima County employees.

And then came Alvina Gutierrez.

Gutierrez had read--and scoffed at--the county's newspaper notice that suggested property taxes would be flat. So that morning, she locked the door to her Barrio Centro home, walked around the corner and climbed aboard a Sun Tran bus to make the trip to County Administration for the show, but little tell, of this year's nearly $1 billion county budget.

Patient, pleasant and plainspoken, Gutierrez awaited the self-serving testimony of non-profit representatives.

How could it be, she asked, that the county would advertise that the owner of a $100,000 home will be paying a little more than $407 this year to cover the county's daily expenses? She explained that her bill on the home she has lived in for 40 years, valued at $59,796, was more than $800.

While that amount includes taxes Gutierrez pays to the county, city, Tucson Unified School District, Pima College and to far-flung fire districts, neither the supervisors nor County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry was moved to provide an adequate, let alone polite, answer.

Normally genial and accommodating, Huckelberry was defensive and misleading, telling Gutierrez that county taxes account for only a fourth of her total tax bill. Questioned during a break, he revised that to a third.

It was his final and incorrect answer and one that diminishes both the severity of Pima County property taxes--the highest of any Arizona county--on fixed-income and inner-city homeowners like Gutierrez and their contribution to the county's steadily increasing budgets.

Her taxes to the county will be almost $329 this year. That is nearly 40 percent of her total property tax bill of $868, news she will receive in the next week in an updated, easier-to-read tax notice.

DESPITE THE STEADY stream of claims by Bronson and her Democratic majority of Dan Eckstrom and Richard Elias, Gutierrez's statement shows that county taxes did not decrease.

A 1.4 percent cut in taxes used to pay off voter-approved debt evolved, even Huckelberry concedes, not from any belt-tightening but because of advantageous growth in the county's overall property value, bond payment schedules and interest rates. The cut, as touted by Democratic supervisors, could amount to $8 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The tiny drop resulted in a $3.13 cut in the portion of county taxes Gutierrez pays for county bonds. Yet her overall county tax, because of constant increases in the assessed value of her home, will climb by more than $5 and her overall bill by nearly $14.

They are not insignificant numbers.

"We're talking about almost $1,000 out of my yearly income," Gutierrez said from the dining room of her immaculate yet modest home on a clean block north of 22nd Street east of Tucson Boulevard.

"I can go to the movie house and get a discount. I can go to a restaurant and get a discount. I can't get one on taxes. Yet they won't go after the big (property owners) who don't pay and they give breaks to businesses."

Indeed, the day Gutierrez spoke to the board, supervisors ratified a $500,000 payment to the Greater Tucson Economic Council.

With no fanfare and none of the design of an activist, Gutierrez and others like her have come to represent the dollars in Pima County's spending machine.

When tax rates are cut or stagnant, her home's value, as set by Pima County Assessor Rick Lyons, a Democrat, increases and thus inflates her tax bill. The growth in that bill, and many others, has helped fuel the county's steady rise in spending.

Fourteen years ago, Dan Eckstrom and Raúl Grijalva won elections to their first terms on the Board of Supervisors. Eckstrom boasted then about cutting county taxes. County spending in 1988 was $505 million. Gutierrez's share that year was $171, based on the value of her home, then at $32,362.

This year, the county will spend $989 million--up nearly 96 percent from 1988. And Gutierrez will pay $328 in county taxes, a 92 percent increase from her 1988 bill. The county has reaped the windfall from Gutierrez because of the 85 percent increase in what the county says her home is worth.

Grijalva, who resigned his post in February to run for Congress, and Eckstrom were knocked out of majority power in 1993 and didn't regain it until Bronson joined them in 1997.

County taxes and county spending moved with those power shifts. A raid of surpluses by Republicans Ed Moore, Mike Boyd and Paul Marsh permitted steady cuts in tax rates starting in 1993. They hit $5.12 per $100 of assessed value--$512 on a $100,000 home--in 1996. Gutierrez's home was valued at $41,806 that year by the Assessor's Office and she paid $214 in county taxes.

But over the next three years, Grijalva, Eckstrom and Bronson jacked up tax rates by 9 percent overall and by 16 percent for the portion that pays daily county operations. Gutierrez's home value, according to the Assessor's Office, also rose--20 percent in 1997--and her county tax bill that year was $258. County spending rose to $639 million that year.

After leveling off for the next two years, the assessed value of Gutierrez's home jumped 11.5 percent to $55,278 and her 2000 county tax bill jumped to $276.

"I've been here 40 years and it's the same house," she said.

She has changed the front landscape, pulling out the grass to save on costly water bills. She replaced a heater. And, using a city program, she took out a low-interest loan to fix her roof.

She marvels at how the Assessor's Office can arrive at the value without arriving at her doorstep.

"They must do it by airplane," she said.

There will be no break next year. The value of her home has increased to $60,771.

TWO WEEKS AFTER Gutierrez appeared at the budget hearing, Bronson, Eckstrom and Elias beat back an attempt by Republicans Ray Carroll and Ann Day to make a nominal cut in the county tax rate.

At home, Gutierrez scanned a copy of her tax statement. She may not agree with high-cost TUSD administration, but accepts her role, and $344, to help educate the city's children this year. Nearly $100 will go to Pima Community College, which has increased costs to pay for new campuses and for a new football team. To the city, which hits Gutierrez for 2 percent of every purchase she makes except for grocery food or prescription medicine, she pays only $67 in property taxes. She doesn't complain about the $12.70 that will go to the Tucson-Pima Library. Although her city taxes provide her with police and fire protection, she'll also pay $2.74 to help subsidize 18 fire districts that ring Tucson.

And despite talk about county bonds for inner-city investment, Gutierrez sees little.

"When I walk to the Circle K on the corner, if there's been even a little bit of rain, it's like stepping in a bathtub full of water," she said. "There are still no sidewalks."

She is not alone. Other county voters who supported the $350 million county transportation bond in 1997, plus $10 million in community reinvestment, were promised sidewalks and streetlights on other thoroughfares such as South 12th Avenue. But Pueblo High School students, as well as parishioners and students at St. John the Evangelist, still must negotiate uneven dirt or mud between West Ajo Way and Veterans Boulevard on South 12th.

Enough has been made of the county's chronic high taxes that Huckelberry and the Democratic majority have initiated studies that conclude the county needs high taxes and large budgets--73 percent higher in the last six years--to handle the ever-increasing population in the unincorporated portions of Pima County.

Thirty-six percent, or 314,000 people, live outside Tucson, South Tucson, Marana, Oro Valley and Sahuarita. If the unincorporated population were reduced to the levels of low-tax Maricopa County--less than 7 percent of the people in Maricopa County live in unincorporated areas--the county would have to serve just 59,000 people with police and parks. That alone, Huckelberry said, would save $52.4 million and trim the tax rate by 21 percent--a $71 savings for Alvina Gutierrez.

Yet, the last two incorporation drives in Casas Adobes and Catalina Foothills failed and a third in Tortolita, despite its advantages to Gutierrez and her Barrio Centro neighbors, has been tied up by petty and costly legal fights from the city of Tucson.

The county's success at the polls in 1997 for new jails, juvenile center expansion and more parks also has added $20 million in additional operating expenses.

Gutierrez was born in Clifton, but considers herself a Tucsonan. For the taxes she pays Pima County, she could have a $273,234 mansion in Clifton or elsewhere in Greenlee County, which has a tax rate that is just 22 percent of Pima County's.

In Phoenix, Gutierrez would need a $212,000 home to generate Maricopa County taxes to match her bill in Pima County, which has property taxes 3.5 times higher than Maricopa. In Yuma, Gutierrez could have a $103,720 home and in Nogales she would need a $75,260 home to generate Santa Cruz County taxes at Pima's level.

"I'm not the only one to complain," Gutierrez said. "These houses are not getting any younger, yet our taxes keep going up. Some of the people won't be able to afford to stay in the homes they have owned for a long time."

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