Pima County voters--or the small percentage of voters who bother to cast ballots--are a forgiving, forgetful lot. Jilted by the county in many well-documented ways after they gave permission in 1997 for a then-record $711-million of debt, voters returned to the polls last week to say they were fine with $732 million in new debt.
In the weeks and days leading up to the bond election, voters were told that taxes would not increase, that money would not--could not--be diverted from its intended use, that police and fire fighters from multiple agencies would soon be able to talk to one another to fight crime and respond to emergencies instantly, and that sexual assaults would decrease. All they had to do was get on board with blanket support for the bonds,
In their corner, opponents had City Councilman Fred Ronstadt, the second-term Republican who led his midtown Ward 6 followers and a growing band in an attempt to swamp the county's six bond measures. After all, Ronstadt pointed out repeatedly, the county had reneged on 1997 bond promises, had shifted money and operated departments already buried in debt.
Truth--in this battle during which just one in five of the county's 395,742 voters played a part--was the first casualty.
Myth No. 1: Taxes will not increase
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and his financial advisers worked up a story that was accepted first by members of the Board of Supervisors and then by the much of the media: Taxes, in Huckelberry's script, would not increase once the big debt was taken on, because the bond sales, like Tuesday's $65 million, would occur as other bonds were retired.
It was the campaign's biggest myth.
Huckelberry was able to sell it by saying the county would not be required to raise the rate on the portion of property taxes devoted to debt payment. At 81.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, or $122.5 for the owner of a $150,000 home, Huckelberry said the county would raise enough money to pay off the bonds each year.
But taxes are rising in Pima County, regardless of unchanging tax rates, because estimated property values keep going up. The heated real estate market and new construction have allowed Pima County to jack up spending by 30 percent in five years, from $842 million to $1.09 billion--with tax rates that remained the same or even dipped slightly.
The campaign ploy worked. Politicians, the media and ultimately voters bought into a false fixation on tax rates.
In 1999, those rates, in an 11 percent jump, were jacked up to $4.07 for the portion that pays for daily operations. That's $610 for a $150,000 property. Supervisors and Huckelberry have been bragging ever since that they have not raised tax rates. Well, they haven't needed to. The bulging tax base, up 8 percent this year to a total of $5.43 billion, has allowed the county to collect more with rates that have, being polite, plateaued.
Here's a better way to look at it. The county trimmed the tax rate for debt service by 19 cents (a $28.50 savings on a $150,000 home) over a five-year period that ended in August 2002. Still, higher values and new construction allowed the county to raise a maximum of $5.4 million more last year compared to the collections in 1998. This year, the county will take in $16 million more in local property taxes for daily operations.
Huckelberry could not have been oblivious to this. The value of his Flowing Wells home, along with resulting taxes, also has increased by 40 percent in the last five years.
County spending in the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes a $68 million increase from the previous year. That's without all the property, buildings, police and emergency communications systems, parks, ballfields, shooting ranges, hospital wings and more that voters eagerly supported last week. Even if Huckelberry is able to keep the tax for debt service at the same rate, taxes will necessarily increase for maintenance and operations.
Myth No. 2: Bonds had near universal support
Pima County will go headlong into debt as a result of support from the few. The largest number, 58,400, supported the $150 million in sewer bonds that will be repaid with higher connection and monthly fees. The lowest voter approval came from the 50,542 who supported river parks and flood control. The $173 million for open space, including $10 million for a buffer for Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, passed on the strength of 57,222 voters and a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent.
Pockets of discontent popped up among the county's 401 voting precincts, though the numbers were generally shallow, sometimes as low as single digits. Eleven precincts, each with low turnout, told the county to forget it on all six bond questions. They included one in the Sunnyside neighborhood and three working-class precincts farther south; one midtown precinct south of 22nd Street and east of Swan Road; precincts at the western county outposts of Ajo, Lukeville and Why; and the southern county communities of Amado and Arivaca. The biggest rejection came from McGee Ranch, a sprawling area west of Green Valley. Voters there spiked the open-space bonds by 123-5.
Eighty-four dispersed precincts voted against borrowing for flood control and river park projects while 82 were against new court buildings and radio systems for the police and emergency personnel. Only 22 precincts voted against the open-space bonds.
Myth No. 3: Green Valley and Tucson Estates are tightwads
The retirement communities south of Tucson and in the Tucson Mountains backed the bonds in big fashion, with one minor exception: Precinct 358 on the southern end of Green Valley turned down the open-space bonds. The county has spent $6 million on the neighboring Canoa Ranch and will spend more for ranch building preservation.
Myth No. 4: Ronstadt rules
Singer Linda Ronstadt is a big owner of the Sweetwater Preserve, and her cousin, Fred, the councilman, was the poster boy for bond opposition. As such, he was worse than weak. All the bonds sailed in his Ward 6 and in his precinct, covering a neighborhood south of Speedway Boulevard and east of Craycroft. Only one precinct in Ward 6 rejected the open-space bonds. That was Corbett Neighborhood, south of 22nd Street and east of Craycroft. The same precinct voted down four other bonds and supported only the sewer bonds. Only one other Ward 6 precinct, located east of Alvernon Way and north of Speedway Boulevard, turned down a bond--the one for a police radio system, a new courthouse and jail renovation. Voters there apparently didn't buy a bond campaign story in the Arizona Daily Star that pushed readers to believe that sex crimes would go down if $6 million in bonds were approved for a new victim advocacy center.
The Ward 6 response to Ronstadt's plea was not entirely surprising. He failed to win his ward or precinct when he won re-election in 2001.
Myth No. 5: Raúl Grijalva can get out the vote
A master of suppression, Grijalva touted all the bonds for the government he helped direct for 13 years. Good thing supporters had it in the bag. Turnout in Grijalva's precinct east of South 12th Avenue at West Ohio Street was 5.56 percent.
Myth No. 6: Truth in Bonding
All it takes is a simple majority--three supervisors--to change the funding, schedules and projects in the bond package.