For decades, the city of Tucson and Pima County have partnered with each other in providing water and sewer services to our region, with the city taking the lead with water and the county with sewer. Both entities have charged their customers rates that are based solely on the “cost of service” model and that recognized no distinctions based on where customers lived.
This fair partnership has served our region well, but it will become inequitable if the city government decides in April to impose differential water rates on Tucson Water customers who live in certain parts of Pima County.
More than a third of Tucson Water’s customers live outside the city limits, but only those who live in unincorporated Pima County will be charged more for water service under the plan being discussed. This inequity is only one of the many wrongs associated with this proposal. Others attest to how charging some people more for the same amount of water flies in the face of longstanding agreements and practices.
Inequitable water rates imposed on certain customers will create extra revenue for the city beyond the costs it incurs for providing water to its customers, which is contrary to the “cost of service” approach both governments have always taken.
The county charges all its sewer customers the same rate. In fact, the county sewer system provides recycled water to Tucson Water free of charge based on the terms of a 1979 intergovernmental agreement. Pima County Regional Wastewater Reclamation Department customers pay $86 million annually to convey, treat and provide this water.
Why should Pima residents pay more?
Those in the city government who favor this plan note that other Arizona jurisdictions charge differential water rates. This is true, but none of them function as a regional water provider. Back in 1977, when the Central Arizona Project (CAP) was coming online, the city requested a CAP allocation based on a service area that extended beyond its boundaries. As of today, the city gets 79% of our region’s CAP water.
All Pima County property owners pay a tax to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District (CAWCD) to fund the delivery of CAP water, including those who are not Tucson Water customers. In 2020, all county taxpayers paid a total of $12.9 million to CAWCD and equal amounts of $5.3 million were paid by both city residents and those who live in unincorporated Pima County. The residents of Oro Valley, Marana, and Sahuarita paid the balance.
Given these shared costs, why should Tucson Water customers who live in unincorporated Pima County pay more for their water than everyone else? They should not and members of Tucson Water’s Citizen’s Water Advisory Committee agree. When they met earlier this month, there were 10 members opposed to differential rates and 5 in favor.
These proposed rate hikes would impose a cost on people who have no voice in the city government. “No taxation without representation” is an American credo. In addition, Arizona law requires that fees charged by utilities be “just and reasonable,” but differential water rates would generate excess revenue that is not needed to fund the operations of Tucson Water.
Pima County and the city of Tucson have had a strong partnership during the current pandemic. We have worked together to protect public health and to dispense vaccines. City and county departments have looked for ways to support each other in providing constituent services.
In the future, Pima County and the city of Tucson will need to join forces on many fronts. Recovering from the pandemic will be the most immediate challenge we will face together, but there will be others. Leaders in city government should reject this inequitable proposal and work with us and all other local governments to foster greater regional collaboration.