I read with interest a recent opinion piece by Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller, “Pima County taxpayers deserve better.” Her interpretation of the facts to support her views, is a far cry from real analysis.
I am a registered Republican and a District 1 constituent. I am also a volunteer who has served on the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee for eight years, six of which were as Marana’s representative to that committee. In the interest of accuracy, I felt that I had to provide some context so that people can make up their own minds.
Supervisor Miller has criticized Pima County’s debt, noting it is greater than 3.5 times the debt of all other counties in Arizona.
There are at least two important pieces of information to consider. First, not one of the other counties runs a sewer system. In Pima County, half of the debt comes from a major overhaul of the sewage treatment plants, which was not only the largest single public works project in Pima County, but will also make sure the county complies with state and federal directives demanding higher quality of treated wastewater.
The second point to keep in mind: The voting public signed off on the county’s bond debt. The community considered the package, weighed the revenues needed against the improvements to their quality of life, and determined the projects were worth the investment.
Because of the Pima County bond program, there is a sparkling new library and new parks in the Town of Marana that Supervisor Miller’s constituents can now enjoy. At the time the bond package was voted on by the public, these projects were considered to be worth the investment. Context.
Supervisor Miller is certainly entitled to her own positions, but it strikes me as short-sighted to oppose future bonds without weighing some important questions: Can we afford the improvements and what are we getting in exchange?
As a long-time member of the Bond Advisory Committee, I can attest to the county’s transparency in its bond programs – information about which is readily available on the county’s website. I can also attest that the county is cautious with its debt policies and continues to meet the committee’s expectation that it repay its debt down as fast as possible, within 15 years.
As to whether we can afford it, we have recommended, and the county has agreed, to keep in place a voluntary property tax rate cap of 81 cents per $100 of assessed valuation to guard against big swings in the secondary tax rate. Even if county voters were to agree to a new bond program in the future, the county will only sell new debt as old debt is retired to make sure the existing tax rate covers the payments.
And here’s where I’m going to say something shocking: There is such a thing as good debt. If there were no mortgages, few of us would have houses.
I am a big fan of a highly-functioning sewer treatment system that will serve us for decades to come. It beats a bucket. If the county had to wait until it had enough cash on hand to take a pay-as-you-go approach, we would have very few amenities today.
An infusion of capital also is good for business: It helps lay the foundation for economic growth and has helped construction companies stay afloat during the challenges of the recent past.
The committee is still working through proposals for a future bond election and we will certainly debate projects that have a direct tie to business development. Stronger highway improvements between interstates 10 and 19, for example, are important for trade. Proposed improvements to Science Park Drive would accommodate the growth of the UA Science and Tech Park, which contributes nearly $3 billion to the local economy.
Supervisor Miller opened her column with a statistic showing Pima County ranks in the top 22 percent in terms of property tax rates around the country. That sure sounds bad, but again we need context.
When you look at the survey she cites, Texas doesn’t fare too well on that ranking of property taxes. We know that Texas, rightly or wrongly, has been held up as a model for tax reform. Texas doesn’t have an income tax. New Hampshire also ranks high – maybe because New Hampshire doesn’t tax sales or individual wages. Similarly, it makes sense that Pima County would have a higher property tax rate, as one of only two counties in the state without a sales tax.
The figures are frankly not useful as a comparative tool and shed little light on the overall tax burden of residents. Regardless of whether a jurisdiction is heavily reliant on a particular type of tax, the question is really whether residents are fairly taxed for the services they receive.
We may come up with different answers to that question. That’s fine. That’s what makes for spirited political debate. But let’s not cobble together statistics just to make a spitball. Pima County taxpayers do deserve better.