Vote to decide ownership of sewage plant

Marana would operate facility that cleans 250,000 gallons a day
2013-02-03T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T11:19:39Z Vote to decide ownership of sewage plantBecky Pallack Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 03, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Marana voters will help end a years-long dispute between their town and their county over sewage in an all-mail election this month and next.

The issue of who should provide wastewater service to the town stems from the county denying development permits in the town and the town's dwindling water supply. It escalated to the town getting permission from the Legislature to seize a county wastewater plant, and started to wind down in recent months when the two sides agreed to negotiate ownership and operation of the disputed treatment plant after the county won a set of court battles.

The subject of the ballot issue is a wastewater reclamation plant at 14393 N. Luckett Road, where about 250,000 gallons of sewage a day are treated and discharged into the Santa Cruz River.

The plant cost Pima County ratepayers $23 million to build and another $4 million to finance.

The town tried a number of times to take over the facility for free or for a greatly reduced cost, but now is trying to settle with the county by simply paying the remaining debt, about $14.5 million. The money would come from impact fees charged to new developments.

Although Marana voters in 1988 authorized the town to build, purchase, acquire, lease or own and operate a municipal wastewater and sewer system, last year the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled the town's ballot question wasn't specific enough, meaning the town lacked legal authority to operate the plant.

Now Marana voters will decide again.

A "yes" vote will allow the town to own and operate the system. A "no" vote means the county will own and operate it as part of the regional system.

Either way, most Marana residents will continue to be on the county's system. About 2,100 residents would be part of the town's system.

Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said owning and operating its own wastewater system allows the town to own the water that comes out of that system, clean it and recharge it into the aquifer, use it on open space, and reduce the need to pump water and buy water credits for recharge.

The town can also manage the entire development process for businesses and homebuilders, he said.

The county is ready to settle with the town under the right conditions, said County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

With the plant under Pima County's control, ratepayers pay about $37.50 a month.

The county once estimated the town would have to charge two or three times that much. However, the town plans to make the plant much more efficient, charge ratepayers the same rate as the county and avoid subsidizing the plant with tax dollars.

The plant is bringing in enough revenue to cover expenses, Davidson said.

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/politics to read more about local and state government and political news.

Voter information

Wastewater ballot issue open houses

• 5 p.m. Tuesday at Marana Town Hall, 11555 W. Civic Center Drive.

• 6 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Wheeler Taft Abbett Library, 7800 N. Schisler Drive.

• Information online at marana.com/waterfuture

All-mail election

Ballots will be mailed to voters on Feb. 14 and must be returned by election day, March 12.

For questions about how to vote, call the town clerk at 382-1999.

Q&A on which is best

Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson and Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry answered a series of questions about the wastewater treatment plant in Marana, in advance of the election to determine whether the town should be legally authorized to operate the facility.

Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry

Why does Marana need its own treatment plant?

Marana: A growing town needs to manage its own water resources, the whole cycle, from how water is used to how wastewater is cleaned.

Pima County: The town doesn't have to be in the wastewater business. The county could treat sewage and deliver water to the town.

Who can do a better job providing the service?

Marana: The systems are exactly the same, so it's not a matter of better. The town is in the water business; the county is not. The county has done a great job managing its system, but the town needs to manage its own water.

Pima County: County service is just as good as the town's. The county could continue to provide service and do it without regard to land-use decisions.

Why shouldn't Marana pay the full cost of the plant?

Marana: The county offered to settle the dispute by allowing Marana to pay the remaining debt. Marana residents are county residents, so they've paid into the system, too.

Pima County: It's a compromise. The county's best of all worlds would be to receive full value for the plant and the town's best of all worlds would be to pay nothing.

What's the difference in service fees?

Marana: Rates will be the same as the county's, and ratepayers won't see a difference. The system will be run as an enterprise fund, a business function of the town.

Pima County: Because of the size of the plant and the number of users, it would be difficult for the town to charge the same as the county. The county system is not subsidized through the general fund.

Contact reporter Becky Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4346. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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