Mayday: Pima County Wakes Up To Road Urgency

pima county

At first read, County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry’s proposed Fiscal Year 2017/18 budget for Pima County includes a baby step toward fixing Pima County roads with minimal taxpayer implications, if you take him at his word.

Let me tell you one thing I know better than to do in Pima County: take Huckelberry at his word.

The proposed budget actually does include reductions in general property tax assessments for one year partially offsetting a new special property tax assessment–permitted by state statute–to fund road repairs. For the upcoming fiscal year, the reductions offset a little less than half of the new assessment; amazingly, the Administrator’s plan for the new assessment is to end it after five years and to offset it completely in years two through five, if you take him at his word.

So why in the ever-loving high holy hell didn’t he recommend this before the roads became the abject, crumbling failures that they are?

The proposed budget appears to be a good deal for taxpayers; in fact, it appears to be a quick, cheap fix for road problems in both incorporated and unincorporated areas of Pima County.

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In reality, there are downsides: First off, with the City of Tucson sneaking a sales tax increase past its residents, all five Pima County districts will have taxpayers who will now pay two new taxes for their roads. For most homeowners, and for renters whose landlords pass along the expense, the net assessed value should be 1/10th the home’s full cash value, and the 14-cent tax increase will apply to every $100 of assessed value. A $150,000 FCV home will assess at $15,000, and the new assessment will be less than two dollars a month for the year ($15,000 NAV ÷ $100 = 150; 150 × $0.14 = $21.00 tax per year).

Second, this tentative budget is nothing more than a budget. In absolutely no way can or does it enforce the five-year sunset or mandate the complete offset in years two through five. This is simply a budget for the next fiscal year; this does not ensconce in law provisions on the budgets of future years. Where is that protection, and how do we taxpayers receive that protection?

Third, Huckelberry’s planned approach to bidding individual road projects does not allow for economies of scale–despite the Huckelberry-Bronson Waste Machine’s tendency to abuse master agreements under the guise of economies of scale. Why would he bid every local road repair project individually? Road projects in this town are notorious for taking far, far longer than any reasonable human would ever expect. So wouldn’t the taxpayer actually benefit from lumping many miles of repairs into bigger projects, and then bidding those projects with rapid completion incentives? If Atlanta can reopen a collapsed highway in six weeks, surely Pima County can speed up its road works as well. This budget should require the county to award not-to-exceed contracts with incentives for rapid completion based on more than just one or two streets or neighborhoods at a time; we should be able to repair more roads, repair them more rapidly, and do so for the same money it would cost to bid out each individual little road individually. Not bidding to scale is nonsensical.

Fourth, the restrictions on project funding as suggested would not include fundamentals such as design or ADA sidewalk requirements, and blocking needed funds to fulfill those requirements could enable punitive behavior toward specific districts as we have seen in the past. In what world does it make sense to exclude the fundamental planning activities for road repair from the fund allocation? My fear is that the County Administrator could use general funds to design and plan projects in “friendly” districts, but withhold those funds from, oh, maybe District 1, from which former Supervisor Carroll stole a million dollars of road funds for his district a few years ago. The allocations promised in the tentative budget are useless if the project fundamentals cannot secure funding.

Fifth is another challenge with the proposed budget for road repairs that isn’t the fault of Pima County or Chuck Huckelberry, if you can believe it: The State Constitution caps all county expenditures by a formula. So, to be able to spend the money the county will confiscate from you with this tax, the county has to issue a form of debt called a “Certificate of Participation” so that work can begin immediately and the county can spread out debt payments over time. But that means the county will incur interest expense to facilitate the use of the tax dollars. The interest the county will pay does reduce the efficacy of the tax.

But this expenditure limit does raise one huge question: If the county will continue to raise money for five years, but not be allowed to spend all of it each year, how can the county issue debt for more money than it is allowed to spend? The Huckelberry memoranda offer no explanation for this, but the State Auditor General seems to indicate that debt service is exempt from the expenditure cap. Makes one wonder what good the cap is, then, if it’s so easy for a county to circumvent it.

Assuming a county was working within bounds of the expenditure cap, debt wouldn’t be an option. In that case, the only way a county would be able to exceed its expenditure limits for a given fiscal year would be through an election; Huckelberry has acknowledged in his memoranda that the voters are unwilling to authorize road spending at the ballot box.

And then there’s the finger-pointing: The state, the taxpayers, everyone but the people who directly manage the resources in the county. The legislature won’t raise the gas tax or release more HURF (Highway User Revenue Fund) funds. And if the state did raise the gas tax, elasticity of demand tells us people would drive fewer miles or seek more efficient cars, so gas tax revenue would ultimately come out nearly flat. Huckelberry cites a 20% increase in average fuel economy in recent years. But with new machinery and materials, shouldn’t we be able to get more life out of new road surfaces for less money as well? He doesn’t address technological advancements that naturally lead to cost reductions at all. And every resident of Pima County has good reason to demand a full, accurate, and damning accounting of every cent of HURF contributions from the state for the past twenty years. Why haven’t the roads received better care with the money we already had?

So, let’s talk actual dollars and waste. By levying a new property tax to cover road preservation and repair, the county expects to raise about $19.5m in the first year. About $11m will go to incorporated areas; about $8m will go to local roads (exclusive of arterials) in unincorporated areas. At $43,000-55,000 per mile to perform basic repairs, $8m covers between 145 and 186 miles, and probably fewer miles of roads in “poor” or “failed” condition. Pima County has over 1,200 miles of road in its unincorporated areas. Five years of this funding will not suffice.

Of course, had we not built a launch pad for big flippin’ balloon, Pima County could have completed 70% of the first year’s roadwork without issuing new debt…

But that big dumb balloon will bring in the business!

And the Caterpillar deal? Or the road that Raytheon didn’t want relocated? How much could the whole county, and businesses distributed throughout, have benefitted from road repairs, instead of the elite, chosen few companies who receive the boons that are these sweetheart deals?

This new tax, being part of the annual budget, will need only three votes to pass, and it seems already to have four. Its impact on you as a taxpayer should be negligible. As will be its impact on our roads. Since it’s effectively tax-neutral, it’s worth proceeding, just to get any kind of repairs started.

But this is clearly a token gesture towards an insurmountable problem of the county’s own making, and we could easily have done even more for the roads starting years ago and using money we wasted elsewhere. All the county will be able to do is to patch roads to leave them needing replacement in several more years. Which raises the biggest question of all:

Why is this such a high priority for Huckelberry all of a sudden?