State legislators are considering a law to force Pima County to hand a $23 million sewage treatment plant over to Marana. Marana asked the lawmakers to intervene after losing a three-year court fight to seize the facility.
Marana, which recently annexed the plant near the town's northwest corner, wants it to control the treated effluent produced there, which comes primarily from the town's sewer system.
The county says the plant belongs to and is being paid for by all county taxpayers, and that Marana's breaking away from the county wastewater system is not in the best interest of the larger community - a position a Maricopa County Superior Court judge agreed with in rejecting Marana's claim last June.
Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said Marana would take over any unpaid debt on the facility, as required by SB 1171, which was approved by the Senate, but still needs to be voted on by the House. How much is still owed on the plant was not available Friday.
Davidson said Marana wants to run its own facility, in part to have autonomy on land use and permitting decisions, and in part to control what happens to the water after it is treated. The town would like to use it to recharge the aquifer, he said.
The bill would allow any town or city to "acquire all or any portion of a sewage system located within or serving the city or town and owned or operated by a county," as long as the voters in the city or town approve it, at least 75 percent of the sewage treated there is generated from within the city or town, and the municipality pays the county for any outstanding debt on the treatment plant.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said allowing any municipality to have part of the regional wastewater system would cost all customers more in their sewer bills.
The cost of operating the countywide wastewater system is divided evenly among all ratepayers now, Huckelberry said. Each sewer connection pays the same rate based on usage even though treatment plants in some areas cost a lot more to operate than others.
One of the less efficient sites is the north Marana treatment facility.
The average cost to run the system is about $660 per acre-foot of wastewater treated, Huckelberry said.
"The little plant we're arguing about in north Marana is small and lacks economy of scale," he said, driving costs at that site up to $4,142 per acre-foot of wastewater treated. "If they've got to pay the real rate their bill's going to go up," he said.
It also means other expenses, such as upgrading treatment facilities when necessary, are divided among a smaller group of county wastewater customers, he said.
"What happens is if you extend this to every other jurisdiction, you break up a regional utility into little parts and they all operate less efficiently," Huckelberry said
Davidson said the town has done a "comprehensive set of studies on what our rates will be. They will be the same or similar to what county is charging."
Town control over water, wastewater and development departments will give developers "one-stop shopping," Davidson said, so they won't have to visit the county for wastewater permits after getting town building permits.
Another dispute is the bill requires the town to pick up only the remaining debt on the facility, not to buy it at market value.
Davidson said that's how other infrastructure works. If Marana annexes an unincorporated area, it doesn't pay the full cost of the roads there, but it pays any existing debt on those roads.
Huckelberry said the Arizona Corporation Commission requires that utility purchases be made at market rates.
State Sen. Frank Antenori and state Rep. Vic Williams are two of the nine Southern Arizona legislators who sponsored the bill, including all of the legislators from Districts 25, 26 and 30.
Antenori and Williams said the bill would simply return the right to operate wastewater to the town, or any other municipality in Pima County.
Town residents have already been paying for the treatment facility in their bills, and shouldn't have to buy it again, Antenori said.
Williams backs the move because he wants to restore local control over development decisions.
"This will be a key instrument in the town's ability to attract new businesses in planned and stable growth," he said.
Contact reporter Andrea Kelly at email@example.com or 807-7790.