Tucsonans living near flood-prone areas could be the latest unintended victims of a nearly month-long fight to make Pima County’s $1.4 billion budget “property-tax neutral.”
Pima County officials are recommending cuts to three projects in flood-prone areas and eliminating funding for at least another four city projects.
At the heart of the issue is taxes, with Republican Supervisor Ally Miller pushing for at least $10.6 million in cuts in the county’s main budget and another $8.6 million in cuts in the county-controlled flood-control district to pass what Miller contends is a “property-tax neutral” budget.
The three Democrats and the two Republicans on the board are expected to vote on the various budgets on Tuesday, July 2.
Slashing $8.6 million from the nearly $19 million flood-control annual budget would hit city taxpayers the hardest, and it is unclear whether the projects would be added back into the budgets in the next fiscal cycle.
Notable projects include drainage improvements for the Airport Wash/El Vado Wash on Tucson’s south side just west of Interstate 19, the Santa Cruz River between Irvington and Drexel roads, several smaller Santa Cruz River maintenance projects and drainage improvements for the Christmas Wash project, covering an area along Fort Lowell between Country Club Road and Alvernon Way.
Some projects were spared, including the midtown Arroyo Chico Project, which helps to minimize stormwater runoff further downstream.
There are also several projects outside the city limits that would be delayed if the supervisors back cutting the flood-control district budget by 42% next week.
”A HUGE STEP BACKWARDS”
Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik was quick to criticize the proposed cuts, saying Miller’s push to slash the flood-control district’s budget is shortsighted and punishing taxpayers who have waited years for these projects.
“Taking over $8 million from flood-control projects is a huge step backwards,” Kozachik said.
The Tucson Democrat, whose ward includes midtown Tucson, the University of Arizona and most of downtown, said he has been fighting for years to get the county to back projects inside the city limits.
“I’ve been working with the flood-control district for years, finally getting an agreement that the tax money residents have been paying into the district should be allocated to stormwater flooding projects,” he said.
Delaying some of the projects will put residents of the city in continued danger of losing property during the monsoons, he argued.
“Miller doesn’t need to do her budget-balancing charade on the backs of midtown residents who have been paying for these projects since before she was elected,” he argued.
Miller did not return a call from the Arizona Daily Star seeking comment.
In a mailing to constituents, Miller said her proposals do not constitute a burden to any county department.
“My proposal is not onerous, and I have confidence that staff can identify where reductions in the primary operating budget or the Flood District can be made so that there will be a zero increase from last year’s property-tax bill,” Miller wrote.
On Friday, Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías signaled he wouldn’t support any of the proposals designed to make cuts in the $1.4 billion annual budget to appease Miller.
The chairman broadly labeled them as gimmicks that have little impact on the overall budget but would harm a number of county services.
A third Pima County-controlled taxing district, the library district, will play a minor role in discussions related to Miller’s “property-tax neutral” budget.
The proposed budget for the district includes a small rate increase to help fund construction of two new libraries as well as increasing staffing for the district.
Miller initially signaled a week ago that she would support a modest bump in the property tax rate for the library district, but only if the rates were cut for the other two taxing districts to offset any overall increase.
In the mailing, Miller seemed more open to cuts in the district, asking whether the county needs to hire 12 new employees immediately or delay the construction of one of the new libraries.
To cut at least $10.6 million from the county’s main budget to avoid raising property taxes, Miller also floated a plan to delay the hiring of at least 1,000 employees for two months.
The hiring freeze, she estimated, would save the county about $4.1 million.
However, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said hiring freezes should be used sparingly.
“I am not supportive of hiring freezes, except in emergency conditions. The historical and the largest problem with hiring freezes are the exceptions to the hiring freeze.
“Typically, we first exempt the sheriff, then the county attorney, followed by the courts,” Huckelberry wrote in a memo to the supervisors last week. “Hence, hiring freezes are usually grossly inequitable and do not achieve the desired financial outcome due to the number of exemptions.”
Miller said last week she did not support exemptions for any department.
However, Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier said any hiring freeze would be damaging to maintaining current service levels.
The Pima County Sheriff’s Department has 151 positions that are vacant, although that includes various unfilled administrative posts, not just deputies.
Contact reporter Joe Ferguson at email@example.com or 573-4197. On Twitter: @JoeFerguson