The Spending Disadvantage Of Tucson And Pima County

money cash

The table below shows the huge difference in per-capita spending by Pima County and the City of Tucson compared to the City of Marana and the two large Phoenix suburbs of Scottsdale and Gilbert.  The spending was determined by dividing the government budget for each jurisdiction by the population in that jurisdiction.

Pima County $1,304 1,022,769
Tucson 2,992 535,677
Marana 4,112 34,961
Gilbert 5,029 208,543
Scottsdale 6,734 217,385

It would not normally be fair to compare county spending to municipal spending, because municipalities are incorporated entities that generally have different taxing authority, a more responsive and closer government, and receive state revenue sharing monies and road funds that counties don’t receive.  However, Pima County is an anomaly among large metropolitan areas, because 36% of metro Tucson is unincorporated county, unlike metro Phoenix, where only 6% is unincorporated county.

Stated differently, Pima County is trying to operate as a municipality in the Tucson metropolis, a role that is ill-suited for a county that is over 9,000 square miles.  By their nature, mission and structure, counties are better suited for rural areas, not urban or suburban ones.

Anyway, the table shows that the City of Tucson and the county have a significant spending disadvantage relative to the richer cities of Marana, Gilbert and Scottsdale—and for that matter, to just about any city in Arizona or the nation that ranks high in livability, as measured by good roads, good schools, low crime, a large number of neighborhood parks and ballfields kept in excellent condition, clean and nicely landscaped roadsides, attractive community centers and public spaces, well-kempt public and private property, prompt enforcement of building codes and sign ordinances, and a general impression of good government and a civic-minded population—all of which is a draw for the young creative class and their families, as well as for high-paying companies.

Actually, Marana, Scottsdale and Gilbert are not rich compared to truly wealthy cities across the country.  But they are rich relative to much of Pima County and, especially, to the City of Tucson, which, sadly, has a self-inflicted (and cruel) poverty rate of twice the national average.

Marana, Scottsdale and Gilbert have higher per-capita spending, not because they have higher tax rates but because they have attracted wealthier people, who in turn buy higher-priced homes and consumer goods, which in turn generate higher revenue for the cities when taxed.  (The purchase of a luxury car generates more tax revenue than the purchase of a ten-year-old Kia.)

A higher tax base leaves these cities with more revenue to invest in services, amenities and aesthetics desired by middle- and upper-class people and high-wage employers.  Then, in a self-reinforcing cycle, once these cities attract money, they have even more money for more investments in quality of life, which in turn attracts more money.

I have compiled detailed policy papers and tax analyses that are available to the interested reader, but let me repeat a telling personal anecdote.  Compared to what we paid in Scottsdale, my wife and I pay 50% more in unincorporated Pima County for the total of property taxes, water, trash/recycling pick-up, and fire services—for a house here that is the same price as our former house in Scottsdale.

Granted, we also get to live near our son, have a nicer natural setting and climate, and have met scores of nice people who aren’t hoity-toity.  But in terms of government services and amenities, we have poorly maintained roads, weeds and a clutter of illegal signs along roadways, no close-by neighborhood parks, and the Loop bike-walk path that could be a gem if the trash and shopping carts in the river bottom were picked up.

The main point of this commentary is that Pima County and the City of Tucson would have trouble keeping up with nicer cities even if they were paragons of good government and efficiency instead of examples of bizarre government, wasteful spending, lame excuses, partisan elections, and decades of deferred maintenance.

Republicans say that the county would have the money to fix roads if it was better at prioritizing spending and stopped wasting money on feel-good measures.  But even if the county did this, it still wouldn’t have the money to operate like a first-class city.

It’s sobering to realize that taken together, the city and the surrounding unincorporated county comprise 86% of the metropolitan area.  Stated differently—and I have to search for words that aren’t overly insulting—86% of the Tucson metropolis could stand considerable improvement.

The tragedy of Tucson is that it didn’t have to be this way.  You may know the sorry story.

In short, in the mid-twentieth century, Tucson was seen as having as much potential as metro Phoenix, which was mostly a dusty economic backwater with a seedy downtown.  At the same time, Scottsdale was a backwards-looking cowboy town, and Gilbert was an agricultural town.

What happened?  Tucson became anti-business, anti-growth, and dominated by one political party, while metro Phoenix became the opposite.  Meanwhile, Scottsdale benefitted from visionary, non-partisan leadership, especially under Mayor Herb Drinkwater, who understood what the city needed to do to be attractive to tourists and industry.  Gilbert and other Phoenix suburbs then followed Scottsdale’s lead.

You don’t need to visit these cities to see the marked difference between them and Tucson and Pima County.  Just compare their websites, especially the finance/budget sections, to the websites for Tucson and the county.  In the case of the other cities, you’ll see information displayed in user-friendly formats, you’ll see clearly-stated goals and metrics and progress towards meeting them (for example, Scottsdale displays police response times), you’ll see prominently-displayed ways of contacting city departments and city council members, and if you were a citizen in one of the cities, you’d feel a sense of pride.

By contrast, the financial/budget section of the City of Tucson’s website consists primarily of spreadsheets that look as if they were prepared by a first-year accounting student at the University of Arizona.  Pima County’s website has a better appearance than Tucson’s but reeks of obfuscation and a lack of political accountability.

What can be done to change things?  Again, I’ve written policy papers and analyses on this question and won’t repeat them here, other than to make two closing points.

First, to take a page from my years as a management consultant, when I helped to turnaround companies and nonprofits that had fallen behind the competition, the most important first step is for leaders to acknowledge their mistakes, stop denying the facts, and not kill the messenger.

Second, in terms of specifics, the biggest positive change would be for the unincorporated parts of the metropolis to incorporate.  Unless that happens, the metropolis will remain an economic backwater with a net outflow of talented youth in the creative class and a net inflow of retirees, whose needs, interests and horizons do not make for a dynamic economy and community.

Mr. Cantoni is a resident of Tucson, an author and activist, and a retired management consultant.

About Craig J. Cantoni 15 Articles
Community Activist Craig Cantoni strategizes on ways to make Tucson a better to live, work and play.