PIMA COUNTY, ARIZONA -- Pima County Friday sued the city of Tucson over the imposition of discriminatory, illegal, and unconstitutional water rates on Tucson Water customers in the unincorporated county.
The filing in Pima County Superior Court argues that the city’s new rates, which went into effect Dec. 1, 2021, are discriminatory, including discriminating on the basis of race in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, violate a state law requiring municipal utilities set rates that are “just and reasonable,” and violates the state constitution’s prohibition on special laws.
“Pima County and the Board of Supervisors didn’t want this,” said Board Chair Sharon Bronson. “We spent a year asking and even pleading with the city not to do what should be clear to everyone is unfair, unreasonable, and unconstitutional. We gave them ample proof that what they were doing was wrong and illegal. Yet the City Council did it anyway. We have no option left but to seek relief from the court and protect county taxpayers from this ill-considered and illegal action by the Mayor and Council.”
The suit lays out in considerable detail the county’s arguments refuting the city’s various claims as to why it imposed higher water rates on its customers who live outside city limits and why it also exempted others who get Tucson Water but don’t live in the city, such as residents of Tucson Unified School District, the Indian Nations, and residents in Oro Valley and Marana.
It also points out the various illegalities of the city’s action and the discriminatory results of the city’s arbitrary and capricious rate increase.
The County’s suit includes several exhibits demonstrating the capricious nature of the city’s rate exemptions. One example would be the residents of Tierra Valencia who live south of Valencia Road near Casino Del Sol. Under the new city rates, those unincorporated residents will pay on average about $56 a month for water. Yet residents right next door in the Pascua Yaqui Nation would pay only about $50 a month.
The city claims that water delivery in the unincorporated County costs more to deliver than to city customers. Yet in the Tierra Valencia example, Tucson Water customers on either side of a road getting water from the same main Tucson Water pipe are paying different rates.
The county’s research, the suit says, shows there are thousands of Tucson Water customers in similar circumstances living adjacent to city residents or those exempted by the city’s rate ordinance, where they are drawing water from the same water delivery infrastructure, yet their position in respect to the arbitrarily drawn line determines whether they pay more or less for city water.
The County’s filing also references an agreement in which the city for over 50 years has cooperated with the county in the creation of regional water and sewer systems. That cooperation and the city’s own declaration that it is a regional water provider, not just municipal, is ratified in the 1979 city-county Sewer Merger Intergovernmental Agreement. The text of the agreement, which is still in effect, includes the city’s avowal to keep water rates low: “As a basis for agreements on effluent, the city and county agree that effluent is a major water resource that must be controlled by the city of Tucson in order to maintain management of total water resources of the Santa Cruz and adjacent water basins. It is further agreed that the city will endeavor to use effluent in such a manner as to preserve the underground water supply and to minimize costs to water rate payers in the city and county,” the agreement states.
The county’s legal claim also gets to the bottom of what’s really motivating the City Council – annexation.
“When stripped of its post-hoc, pretextual, justifications, the City’s real reason for implementing differential rates becomes clear: It is using its control over the region’s water—a vital resource—to force Tucson Water customers living in unincorporated areas to vote in favor of annexation,” the county’s filing states.
The county asks the court to declare the city’s ordinance setting the new rates illegal and discriminatory, and that the court prevent the city from enforcing it.