The question isn’t whether property taxes are going up in Pima County, the question is by how much.
No one likes to pay higher taxes, but the county’s finances leave little room for cuts without affecting services.
Since the start of the recession in 2008, the county has attempted to reduce waste and trim budgets, cutting 11.5 percent from most departments that depend on the general fund. Departments have also not received additional resources to address increases in operational costs.
As the county administrator and Board of Supervisors work together on a compromise budget, they must balance the very real needs of the county with the sticker shock of any tax increase.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s proposed $1.17 billion budget presents a recommended increase of almost 28 cents to the primary property tax rate. This, along with proposed secondary tax increases for the library and flood control districts, would add about $47 to the bill of an average homeowner, who owns a home valued at $146,000.
The 28-cent increase covers the amount needed to maintain property-tax revenue at the current level, as well as budget increases for the Sheriff’s Department, indigent defense and parks and recreation.
The county is facing a decreased tax base — from a peak of $8.9 billion in fiscal year 2009-2010 to a projected $7.5 billion for fiscal year 2014-2015. Simply maintaining property tax revenue at the same level as last fiscal year requires an increase of 5.73 cents to the tax rate.
As for the proposed budget increases, they address budget overruns departments have had due to the cost of providing necessary services. In the past the county has used the fund balance to pay for these overruns, but there is no more fund balance left.
The county administrator is also asking the Board of Supervisors to consider further increases through a series of what are known as “decision packages.” Adopting all of these proposals would mean an additional 33-cent increase. The average homeowner would be looking at an extra $96 on the bill.
These decision packages include additional funds for the Sheriff’s Department and contract attorneys to defend poor clients (on top of the increases included in the 28-cent package mentioned above), the Stadium District, facilities maintenance, information technology, anti-illegal dumping enforcement, road repair and certificates of participation.
Although Huckelberry believes all of these additional recommendations are necessary, he does not expect the board to approve all of them. But some, such as the certificates of participation that cover costs of the new downtown Public Service Center, or payment for indigent defense, address obligations that cannot be put off and must be paid.
Whether there are specific funds for them or not, the money must come from somewhere. As Pima County slowly makes its way out of the recession, now is not the time to cut services and stunt economic development.
“We’re here to promote responsible governance, not to create a shambles out of the county, because that’s counterproductive to long-term economic expansion and recovery,” Huckelberry told us. “If you take your basic institutions and gut them, what happens when you actually recover?”
We agree. While the county administrator’s full wish list may be too much, too soon to be politically palatable, a tax increase is necessary to allow the county to continue providing good public services and be able to invest in the area’s future growth.