Though a unanimous vote seemed possible as recently as late May, the Pima County Board of Supervisors approved a $1.27 billion final budget Tuesday with a 3-2 vote.
The measure includes a new 25-cent road property tax, which is partially offset by 11 cents worth of reductions in other property taxes, leaving a 14-cent increase for the coming tax year.
That hike will spell around $23 in additional property taxes for the average homeowner the first year, though County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said the entire 25 cents could be washed out by additional reductions next year. As proposed, the tax would raise roughly $20 million annually for local road repairs and end after five years.
After initially expressing reluctant support, supervisors Ally Miller and Steve Christy voted May 23 against the tentative budget, which included the road property tax. They were also the no votes Tuesday.
After the May vote, the proposal was modified to include the creation of a Transportation Advisory Committee, which would provide recommendations to the board on which local roads to prioritize for repair. The three-member majority asked staff to develop a “public and transparent process” for choosing road projects.
Previously, Huckelberry had proposed allowing the individual supervisors determine how to prioritize those projects.
“It’s disappointing to me that that has been removed,” Christy said before final adoption Tuesday, adding: “That committee was not elected by the voters; the supervisors were. The supervisors have the best knowledge, feel and handle for the issues of the roads in their district.”
Defending the advisory committee, Supervisor Richard Elías said that final decisions will still fall to the full board, and that “the days for that kind of pork barrel decision-making are gone.”
Each supervisor will get two appointments to the 13-member committee, with Huckelberry getting three. With a 3-2 vote, the supervisors approved the administrator’s appointment of former public works Deputy County Administrator John Bernal, former Tucson and county transportation department Director Tony Paez and Curtis Lueck, a semi-retired traffic engineering consultant who also worked in local government.
Another modification that drew the criticism of Miller and Christy was the elimination of specific district allotments for nearly $11 million of the road property tax’s annual proceeds that come from the 14-cent property tax hike.
Though currently planned for five years, the property road tax could be shorter lived.
That’s because the supervisors also voted unanimously Tuesday to start a public process to explore a possible half-cent sales tax for the 2018-2019 tax year. They did not vote to approve the tax, a decision that would require a unanimous vote and wouldn’t come until next year at the earliest.
Such a tax would generate an estimated $70 million annually that could replace the 25-cent road property tax and allow for a substantial reduction in county property taxes, which are among the highest in the state.
Before the vote, Robert Medler, vice president of government affairs for the Tucson Metro Chamber, said his organization prefers a sales tax to a property tax for road repairs.
“While we support both, the biggest thing we hear from our members is they don’t care how it’s done: Fix the roads,” he said.
Local resident Gary Knox, on the other hand, was skeptical that any tax increase was necessary to pave the roads.
In coming months, a citizen’s advisory committee will begin considering the half-cent proposal and hold a number of public meetings to gather community input. By next March, they would make a recommendation about a sales tax to the board, according to a recent memo from Huckelberry.
Miller said she would “very reluctantly consider” a possible sales tax, and Elías said, “I’m dubious at best about a sales tax,” but all five supervisors agreed to put the question to their constituents.
“We’re not enacting anything today,” Supervisor Ramón Valadez said. “This is initiating a discussion with our community about how we can best solve this problem.”