You may have heard or read lately that Pima County has the most debt of any county in the state.
That’s true; comparing county-to-county, we’re the highest, but that fact is mostly irrelevant.
Simply stating that factoid and not giving it any context is a way by some to purposely mislead people and misrepresent the county’s finances.
To fairly and accurately put the county’s debt in context you first have to know why the county has debt, and second, compare the total indebtedness of all the governments in the county – school districts, municipalities, fire districts and the like – to the total indebtedness of other counties.
It is ludicrous to argue that Pima County shouldn’t have debt, which by implication means it should somehow first save up all the money needed to pay for capital improvement projects or critical infrastructure before starting construction. That’s like arguing that someone who wants to buy a $150,000 house must save up the cash first rather than leverage their income over 30 years through a mortgage.
That’s what Pima County does, it leverages future tax or fee revenue to pay for critical infrastructure and important community needs.
Every few years, the county compiles a list of projects requested from throughout the county and every jurisdiction, has an open, public process to vet and winnow those projects for presentation to voters, and then lets voters decide if they want to pay a little more tax every year for these important projects.
Pima County has submitted 11 bond packages to voters since 1974 and nearly every question in every package passed most by wide margins (just three questions out of several dozen failed to pass), for a total voter-approved debt of $2 billion. Just about half of that debt has been paid off and the remainder should be paid off within the next 15 years (which is generally the term of the loan for each bond sold), unless voters approve more debt in the future.
That borrowed money has paid for hundreds of miles of new, wider and improved streets, new and improved parks, better flood control and much, much more. If Pima County had to wait until it had saved up the $350 million voters passed in 1997 before widening dozens of clogged streets, it’s a good bet that many of the region’s roads would still be rush hour parking lots.
It also should be noted that about half of the county’s debt is related to the need for constant expansions and renovations of the county sewer system, which were necessary to keep up with the county’s growing population. No other county in the state operates a regional sewer system.
Pima County’s bond system is unique in the state. All of the region’s jurisdictions have jointly decided to use Pima County as the primary bonding agency for the region’s needs.
In other counties, especially Maricopa, each government only borrows money for its own projects. Because 90 percent of Maricopa County’s population lives in municipalities, it doesn’t have to pay for much infrastructure and therefore its debt is quite low. So comparing Pima’s debt to Maricopa’s is grossly unfair. Moreover, if you look at all of the debt owed by all of the governments in Pima County as compared to all of the debt owed by all of the governments in Maricopa County, it’s not even close; Maricopa County is the runaway winner. Total government bonded indebtedness (as reported to the state Treasurer) in Pima County, as of fiscal year 2013, is $3.6 billion. In Maricopa County, the total is $17.8 billion.
Phoenix alone has six times the debt of just Pima County even though it only has one-and-a-half times more people.
So yes, Pima County has debt, but the next time you hear someone say just that, you’ll have the necessary context to know why and that it’s responsible, reasonable and voter approved.
(Editor’s Note: Chuck Huckelberry is the Pima County Administrator.)