The metaphor of drops falling into buckets is getting a lot of mileage in Pima County these days.
It is most frequently being employed to describe the current Road Property Tax, whose $19.5 million in annual proceeds many say is not up to the task of getting all county roads — including those in incorporated areas — back to fair condition. The estimated price tag for just unincorporated Pima County roads is around $330 million, not including inflation or ongoing maintenance.
It is against this backdrop that talk of a possible county sales tax, whose proceeds would vastly outstrip those of the property tax, has been proceeding. Among other things, a sales-tax commission has been mulling the issue and will make recommendations to the Board of Supervisors about whether to pursue such a measure in the coming months.
Last October, Supervisor Steve Christy put forward a roads plan that featured a half-cent sales tax, as well as RTA management of the effort.
More recently, another plan has emerged, one whose principal proponent is Supervisor Ramón Valadez.
Valadez says the two plans are not in conflict, and are rather “very compatible.”
Christy doesn’t go that far, and raised several concerns about the plan as written. But he did say, “There are many things I find attractive in it,” though the “overall concept needs some substantial tweaking.”
So, what are the plan’s basics?
It sets the ambitious goal of improving and preserving “the condition of every single unincorporated Pima County maintained paved roadway within 10 years.”
That Herculean repair and preservation effort would cost around $527 million, though the county’s share of the sales tax would be $279 million over that period. Nearly $800 million would be raised by the tax, which would be split among all the jurisdictions based on population. Among other things, that sizable gap would be filled in by Highway User Revenue Fund dollars currently used to service debt for 1997 bond projects, a sizable sum expected to decline precipitously in coming years as those bonds are paid off, and anticipated increases in county receipts of HURF funds over the next decade.
Out of the gates, good and failed roads would see the earliest attention, what the plan calls “both a worst-first and best-first approach.” Roads in good condition are fairly cheap to keep that way, while the worst roads would get a full mill and fill.
But the money wouldn’t just be for roads. After the first year, a portion of the proceeds, which would grows by 2.5 percent annually, would go toward reducing the county primary property tax rate, which at $4.46 for every $100 of taxable value is currently the highest in the state.
After 10 years, the sales tax would be dedicated solely to property reduction, which would bring the current rate down to an estimated $3.08 per $100, according to a memo describing the plan written by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry. For a homeowner whose house is worth $100,000, that would spell an annual property tax savings of nearly $140. A family with the county’s median household income of $47,000 would pay an extra $70 a year if the sales tax is approved, according to county estimates.
If any board tries to use the funds for anything other than property-tax reduction or roads, the tax would sunset, Valadez told the Road Runner. Before the board considers the sales tax, he wants it to first approve an ordinance that would set the ground rules for its use. That would take a simple a majority vote, unlike approving the tax itself, which requires a unanimous vote.
“Where is it going to go, how is it going to be spent, when are we going to see changes, when are we going to see repairs to those roads?” Valadez said of some of the concerns the ordinance would address.
“There’s a lot of open-ended questions, and we wanted to eliminate all those questions, and we wanted to do it in such a way that it has the power of law.”
Christy thinks the plan “is headed in the right direction,” but shared several criticisms with the Road Runner.
For one, he’s concerned that it doesn’t take a position on RTA administration, which he reads as a tacit criticism of that approach.
“When you leave something out, you’re speaking volumes,” he said.
For his part, Valadez says he could go either way, but did note that letting the RTA manage would come with some extra administrative costs.
Christy also doesn’t like splitting proceeds between roads and property-tax reductions, which he says “muddies the waters” and makes the proposal too complicated. His plan calls for spending all new revenues on road repair.
The fact that the proposed sales tax would be permanent, barring violations of its terms or action by the board to end it, also doesn’t sit well with Christy. He’d prefer to see expiration terms, or requirements to revisit or reanalyze the tax.
“I’d like to have something built in,” he said.
Christy is not the only critic. In fact, the two biggest hurdles to unanimous passage will be supervisors Ally Miller and Richard Elías.
For Elías, the disproportionate impact low-income residents bear with any sales tax is his biggest concern. He said he wouldn’t support either Christy’s or Valadez’s plan as currently presented.
He also thinks that HURF bond debt-service savings, coupled with other revenue streams, could be enough to address the roads issue without a new tax.
Valadez’s plan does call for a county commitment to efforts to offset the impact of the sales tax on the poor, including increased support for tax-return preparation, which could help more low-income residents take advantage of certain state income-tax credits.
That’s not enough in Elías’ opinion, but what might convince him is using some of the sales-tax proceeds to support programs that directly benefit the county’s many poor residents.
“I truly believe that the roads are problem that need to be addressed,” he said. “But I don’t think they are the single most-important issue that we face here in town.
“There are other issues that are just as great, including the amount of poverty that we have in our community and the lack of a safety net.”
“There has to be some give and take here,” he added later.
Miller did not return a call seeking comment, but has claimed that the state of county roads is reflective of improper prioritization of current resources, not a revenue problem. She has previously told the Road Runner that she would be open to a sales tax for road repair if certain conditions are met.
Valadez declined to guess what his plan’s prospects were, but with two hard skeptics, Christy had a less-than-rosy outlook on any proposal.
“If a vote were taken today, all the efforts we’ve gone through to try and determine some kind of a road-repair plan utilizing a countywide sales tax would fail,” he said. “It would not get the required unanimous votes, there’s not doubt about it.”
“That’s why I’m urging all the supervisors to come up with a plan,” he added. “Not just a lot of fluff and posturing, but a definitive and intricate plan that addresses repairing our roads.”
The plan Valadez backs is slated for discussion at the Feb. 6 supervisors meeting.
DOWN THE ROAD
There will be lane restrictions on Interstate 19 between at Canoa Ranch Road this week to accommodate road work. On Monday and Wednesday, southbound I-19 will be reduced to one lane from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. The same will be true of the northbound lanes on Tuesday and Thursday. During the work, speeds will be reduced to 45 mph.