Chuck Huckelberry

Submitted Photo

Headline writers have a tough job. I understand that. There's no room for context or nuance when you have six words to encapsulate a story.

But the headline on the story introducing Pima County's recommended 2013/14 budget - "County wants 5% property tax hike" - was pure fantasy.

In actuality, we are building a budget based on a premise of a 1.1 percent reduction in the amount of property taxes collected throughout the county.

A little explanation is in order. Property taxes are contingent on two things: the tax rate and the value of your property.

Market values are beginning to recover, but there's a lag time for those assessments to be reflected in the values set by the Pima County Assessor's Office.

Next fiscal year, property values throughout the county as a whole are expected to decrease 8 percent.

If the primary tax rate stayed the same, it would mean a nearly $18 million hit to the budget next fiscal year.

Instead, we have recommended that the primary tax rate bump up from $3.41 per $100 of assessed valuation to $3.65. That will essentially keep the total amount of primary property taxes for next year the same as we collected this year.

People may ask why Pima County can't just absorb the loss. We have.

Our General Fund departments have been cut 11.5 percent since fiscal year 2007/08. The county workforce has been cut nearly 13 percent in that same time and pay has remained static.

Our proposed budget is lower by 14.6 percent, or $216 million, than it was then.

But the reality is that while we continue looking for efficiencies, there is a set number of needs. Our deputies have the same area to patrol, whether there is a recession or not. People still need health services and work-force training. They still visit the libraries and turn in stray dogs and use the parks and expect their documents to be recorded on time.

In fact, in many of these areas, we've seen service demands go up as a result of the economic downturn. But at some point, we cannot just continue trying to do more with less.

Bringing the budget into some state of equilibrium will mean we can keep the Sheriff's and County Attorney's offices intact despite federal and state budget cuts. It will allow us to fix and maintain 100 miles of county roads, over and above what we already spend every year.

That doesn't mean, as the headline suggested, that we're looking to increase taxes.

The tax levy - which is the entire amount of property taxes we collect, including primary and secondary - will be $4.3 million less than we collected in the current fiscal year.

There are always exceptions, but as a whole, homeowners still should see taxes go down next year.

Consider the average home, with a 2012 value of $155,834. A 7 percent drop in value would bring the home to $144,835. That homeowner's $749 tax bill would drop to $735 - a reduction of 1.8 percent.

My skills are best adapted to running a county government, but I'll take a shot at writing a headline. "County proposes 5% tax rate hike; but overall taxes to go down."

To review the proposed county budget for yourself, please visit:

Chuck Huckelberry is the Pima County Administrator.