Where Are Pima County's Spending Priorities?
THE FIRST SHOT in the Great Pima County Growth-Control War has already been fired, and it should have the big-money developers scurrying for cover.
A few days before the recent election of unabashed controlled-growther Sharon Bronson to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, her soon-to-be colleagues on the Board, Dan Eckstrom and Raul Grijalva, met with Tucson City Councilmen José Ibarra and Steve Leal.
The Four Amigos' purpose: To warn the policy wonks planning a massive bond proposal they'd better consider in-town needs before they do what's generally been done here in the past--namely earmark most of the potential bucks for the fast-growing edges of town.
It was nothing less than a shot across the bow of the Growth Lobby juggernaut. It would've been an heroic gesture, too, were it not for the fact these particular pols, thanks to their loyal urban and Hispanic constituencies, are immune to developers' bullying.
But their warning was further evidence controlled-growth activists increasingly seem to be realizing there's no reason Tucson residents need to put up with even a wiff of urban decay for the purpose of supporting large-scale, leap-frog development of the type currently decimating Tucson's outlands.
Last week's initial announcement by the bond advisory committee roughly outlining priorities for the proposed issue had Grijalva clucking doubtfully. "We're going to have to take a close look at the proposal," he said, adding the health and safety concerns of his southside constituents must be considered. "We're talking about simple things like street lights to cut down on crime. We've been waiting for those things in my district for years."
As the activists are quick to point out, 60 percent of the county's residents live within the City of Tucson, but Pima County has traditionally gotten 39 percent of all assesed-value property taxes, while in-town needs have gotten a measley 8 percent.
It's likely that simple fact will play a big part in controlled-growthers' strategies regarding the upcoming bond election, which some officials say could happen as early as February or as late as mid-May, depending on whether the current Board sets the election or the pols wait for the new Board, which takes office in January. Officials say they'll be asking for $210 million, nearly the limit of the county's bonding capactiy.
That debt, if approved by voters--always a big if--would be covered by the secondary property taxes, which the supervisors control--and therein lies the problem for the Growth Lobby.
Developers fought hard to keep Bronson from joining the Board; they've sparred openly with soon-to-be Board President Grijalva; and no one, it seems, has the political muscle to push around Eckstrom, who enjoys a rock-solid power base in South Tucson, and who probably will for life. Faced with such a potentially implacable Board majority, what's a fat-cat land speculator or a big-time stucco pusher to do?
Because, according to government estimates, we also need about $470 million to meet immediate and near-term transportation needs in Pima County (roughly $300-million worth in Tucson proper). And while the county expects to receive an addtional $250 million in bonding capacity from gasoline taxes (also referred to as "HURF monies") over the next decade, that will only begin to cover the problems uncontrolled growth has already produced for this community.
Can you say "hefty impact fees"?
Meanwhile, a newly formed neighborhood- based group, the Lobby for United Neighborhood Action (LUNA), is organizing to fight the Growth Lobby. Their main issue: quality of life.
It's an issue that should play very well within the city limits. As LUNA members note in a recent mailer:
From 1980 to 1995 metro Tucson's population has grown by more than 227,000 people, according to the Tucson Planning Department. The added tax base of these new residents has done nothing to stop the rising cost of housing, utilities, city services or police protection. In fact, Pima County's debt load is lagging far behind the ability to keep up with the need for new services. And it's only going to get worse.
The average metro Tucson taxpayer has seen a 250 percent increase in property taxes since 1980.
The property tax burden is shifting onto the homeowner at a fast pace. Over the past five years, homeowners have gone from paying 33.7 percent of total assessed valuation in fiscal year 1990-91 to 42 percent in 1995-96. Meanwhile, the assessments for mines and utilities are expected to drop from 60 percent in 1980 to 25 percent by the end of the century. Also, the assessed ratio for rental units dropped from 15 percent to 10 percent--the same rate given to homeowners, even though 60 percent of Tucson's population rents.
And the burden on homeowners will probably only get worse: The state Auditor General has recommended county assessors value property at 100 percent of market value, versus 82 percent.
Furthermore, LUNA notes, the county has spent virtually no transportation money on the traffic needs of county residents who live within the city limits.
"Your tax dollars," the mailer says, addressing in-town residents, "have been building roads for new urban sprawl while developers pay virtually none of the cost."
When the city and county get around to floating yet another bond issue covering the valley's transportation mess, will in-town residents, who must increasingly deal with gridlocked streets, be in any kind of mood to pay for roads for newcomers?
Not bloody likely.
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