Pima County sues Tucson over water rate hike

KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Nov. 24, 2021 at 7:00 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The Pima County Supervisors voted 3-2 to sue the city of Tucson for imposing higher water rates on Tucson Water customers who live in unincorporated Pima County.

“We have a duty to advocate for people we represent who are having this wrong imposed on them,” said District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott who voted to sue the city. “There’s always a risk, always a risk in taking legal action.”

Scott went on to say just prior to the vote “none of us are happy with what we are about to do.”

There are about 71,000 customers who will see their water bills increase by an average of $6.17 a month or about $74 a year, depending on water use. The increase will be 10% to 40%, again depending on how much water they use.”

The city estimates it may bring in $10 million annually.

“At this point, litigation seems the way around this to protect those folks in unincorporated pima county who are having to pay an inequitable rate,” said Deputy County Administrator Jan Lesher.

She also added she had hoped they could “sit around a table and find a solution.”

The city of Tucson feels it’s on firm legal ground by imposing differential water rates, as they are called.

Eight other communities in Arizona have imposed them, including Phoenix, Scottsdale and Glendale but many have been in place for years.

The county feels this case is different.

The city exempted Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita, TUSD, South Tucson and the reservations where Tucson Water is delivered.

“It’s wrong to exempt certain customers in the unincorporated county from the higher rates which demonstrates favoritism and strengthens those arguments about inequality,” Scott said.

But the city believes it will win the case on the merits.

“We had a pretty solid legal opinion from the city attorney based on precedents and based on other jurisdictions throughout Arizona,” said Ward 1 City Council member Steve Kozachik. “And I think we’ll win the suit.”

Tucson’s Mayor Regina Romero released this statement:

“Today’s vote by the Board of Supervisors lacks any legal basis, is purely symbolic, and sets a dangerous precedent. The courts have affirmed the legality of differential water rates, and water utilities throughout the state already have them in place.”

“It is incumbent upon our elected leaders to be strong stewards of our precious water resources, especially as we face the likelihood of a Tier 2 shortage at Lake Mead. I thank Supervisor Grijalva and Supervisor Heinz for their leadership, and for recognizing that this lawsuit is futile.”

“The independent cost-of-service study clearly demonstrates that it costs up to 26% more to serve water to customers in unincorporated Pima County, meaning that Tucson residents are currently subsidizing the cost of water delivery to them. The County’s campaign to de-legitimize the third-party cost-of-service study - which was conducted by the same consultant the County uses to set its wastewater rates - is not based in facts. The County cannot simply reject this study because it did not produce the results they were hoping for.”

Ward 2 City Council member Paul Cunningham sent this statement:

“The county’s decision to obtain legal counsel is a waste of time and public resources. If the county wants to spend our tax dollars on a lawsuit without merit, that’s their business.”

He also added he hopes the city will recover legal costs.

The county will seek outside counsel to handle the lawsuit. It will not file an injunction to stop the water rate hike from going into effect Dec. 1.

“If the county is successful in this litigation we’ll be able to insure from December 1st on, any of those dollars go back to the people who’ve been paying the rate if its finally determined not to be appropriate,” said Lesher.

The county says it has tried to resolve the issue since the city first broached the idea of differential water rates in January.

“We have already sought amicably to resolve this matter with the city,” said Scott. “They have either rejected or nor responded to our repeated requests and by their action or inaction, they are forcing us to take this step.”

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