PHOENIX - State lawmakers voted Thursday to let Marana wrest control of a sewage treatment plant from Pima County.
SB 1171, given preliminary House approval, would give the rapidly growing community the unilateral authority to purchase the plant whether the county wants to sell it or not. It does not require the town to pay the fair value of the plant, only to pay off any remaining debt.
The legislation, which already has Senate OK, would overrule a court ruling which has so far thwarted Marana's efforts. Only a final roll-call vote remains before the measure goes to the governor.
"This is about local control," argued Rep. Vic Williams, R-Tucson.
At the heart of the battle is that Pima County - and only Pima County - is permitted to operate a county-wide sewage treatment system. Normally, that responsibility falls to each city.
Rep. David Stevens, R-Sierra Vista, said Marana residents voted more than 20 years ago to withdraw from a 1979 intergovernmental sewer agreement. Stevens, whose district includes part of Marana, said that should have allowed Marana to opt out and take possession of the sewage treatment plant that now is within the town limits.
But when Pima County balked, the issue eventually wound up in a lawsuit, with a judge ruling the town could not take over the plant. Stevens blamed that ruling on "some of the antics" by county officials.
One of those, he said, was declaring the area around the sewage plant to be a county park, precluding the city from taking it over.
"At some point, there was a picnic table chained inside there," Stevens said. "I have yet to see any children playing there or some swings there," he quipped.
But part of the ruling is because of a special state law which makes Pima County responsible for all sewage operations. This bill, in specifically allowing communities to opt out, would amend that law.
Part of the fight is about money.
Under the terms of SB 1171, Marana would be required to assume responsibility for all remaining debt on the sewage treatment plant. But there is no requirement for the town to pay Pima County for the current value of the asset.
That provision concerned Rep. Russ Jones, R-Yuma.
"All of the taxpayers (of the county) have been paying off on bonds," he said.
Jones said he doesn't have a problem with carving out part of the system for Marana to own and run. But he said it has to be financially fair.
"I want to make sure in my mind that all the balance of the taxpayers in Pima County, given the present-day value of their investment over the years in those same bonds, that they're going to be made whole on that," he said.
But Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, who wrote the legislation, said he sees no reason for a cash payment. He said Marana residents have been paying hookup fees, impact fees and sewer bills all along.
There's one other element to the fight: Who controls - and gets credit for - the effluent. That relates directly to the ability of communities to have an adequate water supply to support future development.
Rep. Bruce Wheeler, D-Tucson, attempted unsuccessfully to amend the legislation to require a new vote of Marana residents to take over the system.