Judge rules differential water rates for county customers of Tucson Water are “unfair”

Published: Sep. 15, 2023 at 9:38 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - A Maricopa County judge has ruled that Tucson Water customers living in unincorporated Pima County are being overcharged for their water.

In 2021, Tucson began charging tens of thousands of water users a “differential water rate,” saying it costs more to deliver water to the outlying, unincorporated areas.

However, the city exempted Marana, Oro Valley, TUSD, the Tohono O’odham and the Pasqua Yaqui nations and South Tucson.

A quick calculation shows a Tucson city customer might pay $50 a month for their water service but in the county, that could be as high as $70.

Initially, the city said the higher rates were an attempt to entice some unincorporated areas to annex into the city or incorporate themselves.

Later, following a water use study, the city said it was because it cost more to deliver the water to unincorporated area, although that was never proven definitively.

“All along, our point has been these higher rates are unjust, especially because they did not reflect an accurate cost of service,” said District 1 Supervisor Rex Scott, who pressed for the lawsuit against the city.

Scott said initially, the county was seeking common ground to avoid the suit, but it became clear to him the city did not want to do that.

“You may remember before we filed this lawsuit we sent them a 10 or 11 point letter looking for areas of cooperation so we could avoid this lawsuit,” he said. “We never even got a response for the letter so we made the very difficult decision to move ahead with the lawsuit.

In the five-page decision, the Maricopa County judge said, “The challenged rates are unreasonable as a matter of law because, on the undisputed facts, Tucson did not set them based cost data.”

The judge ordered the city to pay the county’s legal fees.. but did not say how the residents in Pima County will be refunded or whether they will be refunded at all.

But Scott has his opinion.

“If the judge said that the rates are unfair, it seems to me people need to be compensated for being unfairly treated,” he said. “Absolutely.”

Tucson City Attorney Mike Rankin issued a statement outlining the city’s next step.

“Today, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Warner filed his under advisement ruling in the Pima County vs City of Tucson case relating to differential water rates. Judge Warner ruled in favor of Pima County, finding that the differential rates charged by the City to customers located in unincorporated Pima County were not adequately grounded in cost of service.

This decision by the trial court is a great disappointment. We are evaluating the implications of the ruling that was filed today, and we will discuss all of our options, including our option to appeal, with the Mayor and Council within the next several weeks.”

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