Now that the Town of Marana has officially taken control of one of the county’s five wastewater treatment plants, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said it’s the taxpayers who will continue to lose.
Huckelberry said Pima County taxpayers lose because Marana is only required by law to pay $18 million for the north side plant, but it’s worth $27 million.
Last year, the Arizona Legislature intervened in the battle that dates back to 2007 by passing Senate Bill 1171, which made it possible for Marana to take full control of the wastewater facility even though it was owned and operated by the county. That law allows the Town to pay the county $18 million, despite the argument that the plant is worth $27 million.
“The Pima County residents lose here,” Huckelberry said. “Our residents deserved to get the full $27 million, but legislation only required Marana to pay us for what we currently owe. We don’t want our ratepayers to be short changed.”
Huckelberry added that the Town of Marana has yet to pay the $18 million tab.
Pima County has filed a lawsuit challenging SB 1171 in court.
“This special legislation is unconstitutional,” said Huckelberry. “You can’t single out a group or an individual. If it singles out an entity, then it is discriminatory.”
Under that way of thinking, Marana Town Manager Gilbert Davidson said Pima County never would have gotten into the wastewater business in the first place because a special law had to be passed that allowed them to do it.
Davidson also believes Pima County should be out of the wastewater business entirely because state law requires a county’s population to be one million or more.
Huckelberry said Davidson is again incorrect, noting that an entity has to prove the population requirements to get into the wastewater business, not to stay in it.
Huckelberry said the lawmakers who pushed for SB 1171 did nothing more than “disenfranchise” 42 percent of Pima County’s unincorporated population.
Painted in the ongoing dispute as the bully, or by one lawmaker as a “dictator,” Huckelberry said he’s still surprised how state lawmakers refused to hear Pima County’s concerns over passing a special law. He stressed the battle is not about Pima County holding all the power, but about doing what’s right for taxpayers in the entire region.
Huckelberry said Pima County residents aren’t the only taxpayers this will cost. Marana taxpayers lose because the Town will have to charge at least five times the county’s wastewater rates to operate the plant, he added.
“This plan is fundamentally and financially unfair,” Huckelberry said in the Jan. 31 interview. “(Marana) can run their own estimates all they want, but the inescapable truth is it will cost them substantially more.”
Huckelberry said while Pima County was charging the 1,800 Marana residents hooked to the facility an average of $34 per month, Marana will likely charge as much as $122.
Davidson said the Town is not going to charge five times the county’s rates, and the 1,800 customers will not be negatively impacted by the takeover.
Huckelberry said Marana fought to take over the second-most costly facility in the county, and with wastewater there are certain fixed costs the Town didn’t take into account. As a regional operation, with five plants, the county administrator said operation costs are “substantially” lower than Marana’s will ever be. Huckelberry is predicting the unforeseen costs will continue to come up, and eventually the Town will start having to subsidize the costs through the General Fund.
Huckelberry said he still doesn’t understand why the Town of Marana has fought so vehemently to take control of the wastewater plant when they had other options that would be more beneficial to current and future citizens.
“We told them we would give them the water (effluent),” he said. “This is not about water on the county side. We have said we would give them 90 percent of the source water. They could own 90 percent without spending another dime.”
However, Davidson said that plan wouldn’t work because the Town is required to have a 100-year water assurance as per state law. By owning the wastewater facility, the Town can count all of the water being produced from the plant.
“Because we have to have a 100-year water assurance, the county cannot promise that,” he said. “If it’s not owned by us, we can’t guarantee that in the future for growth. We have a higher supply through ownership.”
Huckelberry also criticized Marana for not taking the same approach as Oro Valley by purchasing CAP water from the City of Tucson.
Davidson said Huckelberry is again incorrect in his assertions, noting that there is not enough CAP water for sale to meet the Town’s needs. While Oro Valley has signed a contract with Tucson for up to 10,000 acre feet of water per year, Marana would only be able to get up to 1,400 acre feet.
One-acre foot of water equals 326,000 gallons of water.
The north side wastewater plant produces an estimated 200,000 gallons of water per day.
“The county is not in the water business, they do not care how much water the plant produces, they don’t understand the need for water resources as we plan into the future,” Davidson said.
Still, Huckelberry said Marana may have state lawmakers on their side, and may feel safe in moving forward in running the wastewater plant, but they are not ready for the responsibility.
“It appears to be a manifest destiny for Marana, they just need to understand the cost,” he said. “They did not anticipate the sludge costs. There’s no glory in running a wastewater treatment plant, but there’s a huge responsibility, and all of it involves public safety.”
Even though Marana appears to be ahead in the ongoing battle, Huckelberry is confident Pima County will prevail as the dispute moves forward in the courts.
The County administrator said Marana lost the first two rounds in court before they ran to the state’s lawmakers for help. He stressed the county was also awarded attorney’s fees, which the Town will eventually have to pay, and he is confident a judge will side with the county and deem SB 1171 unconstitutional, therefore requiring the Town to return the wastewater treatment plant to the county.
After nearly five years of fighting, Huckelberry was asked if there’s any end in sight to the battle over wastewater rights with Marana.
“If we get the full $27 million it will be done,” he said. “We have 260,000 rate payers, and we have to protect their financial interests.”
With the law on Marana’s side, it’s highly unlikely the Town will willingly pay an added $9 million without being required to.
Based on the position being taken by Marana and Pima County officials the battle will march on with no end in sight, and no current court dates either.