The ongoing litigation between the Town of Marana and Pima County regarding control of the Marana Wastewater Treatment Facility is headed to the Arizona Supreme Court.
The Town filed the lawsuit with the state’s highest court on Aug. 14, following a council vote to pursue further litigation.
“Council is staying the course,” said Marana Spokesman Rodney Campbell. “They realize what is at stake here.”
Most recently, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that Marana’s 1988 ballot question asking voters to approve the Town’s involvement in the wastewater business was too vague, meaning should the Supreme Court not overturn the ruling, Marana would need to get voter approval in next year’s election before pursuing facility ownership.
Further decisions by the courts relating to which entity will own the wastewater facility have been halted until this issue is resolved.
Deputy Town Manager Del Post said the ruling by the Court of Appeals came not only as a surprise to the Town, but to other municipalities in Arizona.
“Since 1933, never has any court held that a municipality, before it can expand its utility services, has to go to the voters again, yet that’s what this court’s ruling effectively does,” he said.
Regardless of the ruling, Town staff remains optimistic as litigation prepares to move forward.
“We feel confident the Supreme Court will take it upon review and clarify the law,” said Post. “To not do so would unravel almost 80 years of precedent.”
Since the court decision, the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, an organization that speaks on behalf of the 91 cities and towns in the state, has contacted the Town.
“They are very, very concerned about the ruling, and they are going to weigh in in favor of Marana’s position,” said Post.
Campbell detailed what the ruling could mean for other municipalities in Arizona.
“The Court of Appeals ruling, taken on its face value, would require municipalities that wanted to build a new wastewater treatment plant to have to go to the voters to get approval to build that plant, even though they already have permission to be in the wastewater business,” he said.
Though the ruling relating to the ballot question has served as a speed bump of sorts for the Town, Post said litigation regarding facility ownership has gone favorably for Marana.
“The county demanded that we make a payment of about $700,000 toward the facility, and we took that issue to court, and told them the county has not produced all the documents we need to verify that number, and the court agreed,” he said. “We’re chugging along, sticking to the charted course.”
Should the Supreme Court rule Marana’s 1988 ballot question sufficient, the Town would no longer need to go to the voters to acquire ownership of the facility.
If Marana eventually claims ownership of the facility, state law would require the Town to pay the county for the outstanding debt owed on the facility, though according to staff, Pima County has not been transparent in the amount of debt owed.
“I’ve seen at least three different numbers thrown around,” said Campbell. “How do you negotiate when you don’t even really have a price or a starting point?”
According to Post, the county has expressed an interest in receiving payment for the total value of the facility, a proposal he said is unfair to Marana residents.
“To say that Pima County paid for a plant and now Marana should also have to pay for it too because it’s going to rip off the people of Pima County is disingenuous because the people of Marana are also residents of Pima County,” he said. “The debt is what the law says we need to find out. We’ve asked for itemized statements, and they haven’t provided it. Once we have that, we will comply with the law.”
Though Marana does not currently have the required permits to operate the wastewater facility, it is allowed to do so pursuant a consent order by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
“We’re kind of in a tough spot, because we are operating the plant, but can’t make any significant modifications to it,” said Post. “There are things we could do now to make it hugely more efficient, but we can’t because we don’t have the permits, though we are confident we will get them.”
There is no further information as of yet on when the case will go before the Supreme Court.