Supervisors vote to oppose Tucson Water proposal for differential water fees

PIMA COUNTY, ARIZONA – The Pima County Board of Supervisors at their Tuesday meeting voted 3 – 2 to pass a resolution expressing opposition to a Tucson Water proposal to charge differing service rates for customers outside the Tucson city limits. District 5 Supervisor Adelita Grijalva and District 2 Supervisor Dr. Matt Heinz voted against the resolution.

This proposal would extract a disproportionate amount of money from residents of the unincorporated areas who do not have political representation on the Tucson City Council in lieu of applying rate increases uniformly to all Tucson Water customers.

A proposal before the Tucson Mayor and Council would impose new fee structures on Tucson Water customers, including increasing the rate unincorporated residents pay by as much as 30 percent more than city residents. About 34 percent of Tucson Water customers live outside the Tucson city limits.

The Board of Supervisors and County Administration questioned the motivations and reasonableness of city’s proposed rate changes, noting the inequities inherent in creating such a structure and likelihood of promoting more groundwater pumping.

“Tucson Water acknowledges there is no assessment, rate analysis or rationale for the 10, 20 or 30 percent proposed water fee increase and has explained there are no increased costs associated with delivering water to customers in unincorporated Pima County,” according to a County analysis of the issue. “A differential fee should be justified through rate analysis, otherwise it is arbitrary.”

A concern of County officials is the likelihood that inequitable water rates for non-city residents combined with the established policy of denying the extension of water service to new customers outside the city limits would force new development to acquire groundwater drilling permits. State requirements that groundwater pumpers replenish supplies would likely not uniformly benefit the Tucson Active Management Area as groundwater is typically replenished outside the area of hydrological impact. The Tucson Active Management Area is one of five groundwater management regions identified in the Arizona Groundwater Code.

The city’s proposed rate plan also concerns County leaders because of the apparent conflict with the 1979 Intergovernmental Agreement between the city and County that established the arrangement of Pima County providing regional wastewater services and Tucson providing water for the region.

“The City of Tucson, however, demonstrated clear intent to be the regional water provider within the 1979 agreement through control of the regional water basins, the request for Central Arizona Project allocations, and reclaimed water from the metropolitan (wastewater) facilities,” the County’s analysis notes.

In addition to potentially paying more for the same service, effectively subsidizing city residents, non-city residents would continue to pay a disproportionate amount of Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) property taxes.  All real property in Pima County is assessed the CAWCD property tax of 14 cents per $100 of assessed value. The tax funds construction and maintenance of the Central Arizona Project, which delivers Colorado River water to the region.

In fiscal year 2020, property owners in unincorporated Pima County paid $5,310,788 of the CAWCD property tax while city residents paid $5,295,735. The total levy for the CAWCD was nearly $13 million.

County administration also noted the City’s plan to use half of the additional revenue collected from unincorporated residents from differential fees to directly benefit City residents is inequitable.

A majority of the city’s Citizen’s Water Advisory Committee also opposed the differential rate plan, with 10 of the 15 members voting against the city adopting such a structure. In a memo to the Tucson Mayor and Council, the Committee chairman noted the majority of members expressed concerns that the proposed rate structure would create a breach of public trust in the community, would not incentivize annexation into the city, and create a perception of a regressive tax.

The Board of Supervisor’s vote on Tuesday codifies County opposition to the city proposal. Text of the resolution notes:

  1. Pima County opposes differential water rate fees for Tucson Water customers residing in unincorporated Pima County, and
  2. Recommends the City of Tucson Mayor and Council consider providing regional water service to all of Pima County not served by another water utility as originally envisioned.