Uneasy Street

Supervisor Steve Christy seeks tax increase to fix critical county roads

Pima County Supervisor Steve Christy wants a countywide half-cent-sales-tax increase to deal with the county's dilapidated roads. Christy's "Just Fix the Roads Plan" also calls for repealing the property tax increase the county passed in June and send the revenues from his proposed 10-year sales tax to the Regional Transportation Authority so that agency can manage the road repairs.

The supervisors discussed the plan at their Oct. 17 meeting. Other supervisors expressed concerns about a tax increase but didn't turn the idea down outright. Christy, who first announced his plan on Oct. 10 at the Green Valley Rotary Club, said the situation will just get worse "every day that we don't attend to our road-repair crisis." The sales tax would bring in roughly $75 million annually, raising $800 million by the 10-year sunset of the tax. The county needs about $900 million for road repair, according to the county transportation department.

The property tax that the Board of Supervisors created earlier this year would only bring in just over $19.5 million annually, according to county documents. Christy and Supervisor Ally Miller opposed the 25-cent property tax when it passed with a 3-2 vote.

The 2017 property tax for road repair has already been levied, and some payments have been collected, according to the County Administrator's Office. The five-year tax called for annual renewal, so the Board could choose not to renew it next year.

The sales-tax proposal would need unanimous approval to pass. Christy said that with his background as a car salesman, he can hear the other supervisors' concerns and negotiate an agreement. He hopes to reach a unanimous vote by late November or early December.

Any other possibilities would require either voter approval, which would take time and could get rejected, or action from the state. Chances of help from the Gov. Doug Ducey are next to zero, Christy said.

The county created a sales tax advisory committee in September. Christy has two appointees on the committee, but the group hasn't yet made any recommendation on where a possible sales-tax increase would best be spent. They have only met once so far and had planned to hold at least seven public meetings and make a recommendation by March 2018, before the 2018/19 budget was set.

Some of the county's road repair is paid for with the highway user revenue fund, or HURF, which is a statewide fund made up of vehicle registration fees, driver's licenses fees and gas taxes. Arizona's gas tax has been 18 cents a gallon since 1991, which has meant the funds available have not kept pace with inflation.

"If the gas tax had kept up with inflation or other states, there would have been funding for routine maintenance," said Department of Transportation Interim Director Ana Olivares.

Christy says his sources have told him that when it comes to raising the gas tax, Ducey's position is "not only 'no,' but 'hell no.'"

While Christy and Supervisor Ally Miller are often on the same page, she had expressed concerns and objections, Christy said prior to the Oct. 17 meeting.

Miller, who did not return a request for comment on this story, has said that Pima County does not need to raise taxes. This month, she began compiling ways the county can redirect existing funding for the roads on her web page, which led Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to issue a memo last week detailing why some of Miller's proposals are simply not feasible.

Christy remains interested in working with Miller to find a solution. Miller has long been critical of how the county spends money, so he's hoping that putting the RTA in charge of spending will help convince her.

"The RTA has the entire confidence of the community," Christy said. "It was citizen directed at its inception and is highly citizen controlled during the road construction process."

Over the last 11 years, the RTA has proven the agency can get the job done by completing hundreds of projects on time and under budget, Christy said. He wants voters to turn down the three initiatives on the November ballot that have to do with a sales-tax increase. He also hopes the Tucson City Council could revisit Prop 101, a voter-approved half-cent sales tax for roads and public safety, to see if there's any way to "massage" it to provide relief to taxpayers or perhaps move up the sunset on it, so that everyone can get behind a countywide fix.

The city sales tax, approved by voters in May, would bring in $100 million for road repair to city streets and highways over five years. If Christy's plan is enacted, it would cover all jurisdictions in the county whether incorporated or unincorporated. Supervisor Sharon Bronson, a Democrat who represents District 3, said she's not crazy about the idea but is open to discussing it. County infrastructure maintenance, particularly bridges and roads, is one of the most important issues the county is facing, she said.

"If we go with the property tax, it's going to take us over 20 years to fix the problem," she said. "The fix we have now is barely a Band-Aid."

Bronson wants the problem addressed at the state level. But since that's unlikely, she doesn't really see another solution. And one of the good things about a sales-tax increase is that tourists will help pay for fixing the roads as well, she said. "As we try to maintain our roads, we simply have inadequate resources," Bronson said. "The only tool we have in the county's tool box is a sales tax."

The committee has a meeting scheduled for Oct. 27, where Christy will give a presentation on his proposal.

"I feel confident they will feel compelled to support it," he said. "A county-wide sales tax should go 100 percent to road repair."

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