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Did Mayor Rothschild signal the resumption of the annexation wars?

Are the annexation wars about to begin again, now that Tucson has a new mayor? If so, good, sometimes it takes a war to solve a problem.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, as all Tucson mayors have done for nearly 20 years, mentioned in his state of the city speech this week the importance of getting more county residents into municipalities.

About a third of county residents live outside of a municipality. That costs the region money because several state taxes – sales, income, vehicle and gas – are shared by the state with municipalities on a per capita basis. Counties get some shared taxes, too, but an unincorporated county resident gets counted only once, while a city liver gets counted twice.

For years regional leaders have tried to get more county residents into cities, including creating a shell city run by the county that ringed Tucson. That idea went nowhere about the same time Oro Valley and Marana started growing like weeds, annexing huge chunks of land. Some of that land was vacant and soon sprouted homes, but when the towns had budget troubles, they started pining for established commercial areas rich in retail sales taxes to their south, areas that Tucson was also covetous.

At the time, Tucson Mayor George Miller had a manifest destiny attitude when it came to the state shared revenue deficit – it was better for Tucson and the region if county residents joined Tucson than the suburban towns. Marana and Tucson were soon suing each other over a disputed annexation.

The fight heated up in 1997 when the state Legislature passed a one-year moratorium of veto rights existing cities had over the creation of new towns within six miles of their borders.

Two towns incorporated between Oro Valley and Marana but Tucson sued again and the courts ruled the law unconstitutional, forcing the two towns to disincorporate.

Miller was followed by Bob Walkup in 1999 who called a truce to the annexation and incorporation wars.

All of which means that in the 20 years or so since regional leaders started wringing their hands about the large cadre of unincorporated residents and the subsequent lost revenue, not much has changed.

County residents are mostly happy living in the county and see no need to join another government. Likewise, retail shopping center owners have little incentive to join a municipality, mostly due to higher sales taxes there. Developers can get a deal on new housing subdivisions anywhere (assuming there will be new housing subdivisions again).

And so when the Legislature reopened the door to incorporation last year, few people in the county took notice. A community with a population greater than 15,000 could incorporate now without asking for permission from a nearby town, assuming voters there agreed to create it.

Or communities smaller than that could incorporate with permission, but if permission is denied it starts a six-year clock ticking, reducing the six-mile sphere of influence by a mile per year until the new community is eventually outside of the sphere and able to incorporate, no permission needed.

All any of the communities interested in incorporation need is motivation. Tucson can provide that by resuming the annexation wars.

Rothschild’s speech last week was a little more aggressive when it comes to annexation than Walkup’s “Come on over, if ya wanna” speeches have been the past few years. That may be a signal Tucson is ready to start cherry picking commercial corridors and new housing subdivisions again.

That should get Oro Valley and Marana off their haunches (all three municipalities drool over the Foothills Mall’s retail sales tax revenue) and fire up their annexation machines.

And Sahuarita’s a player in the annexation game, now, too, looking both east and west for possible areas to annex that could add to the town’s bottom line.

Once the annexation fires are lit, communities that don’t want to be carved up by the competing municipalities may look to incorporation to save them.

According to Rothchild’s speech, what matters most is that more county residents live in a municipality, whether it be by annexation or incorporation, so it doesn’t sound like he sees Tucson’s destiny as manifest as Miller did. Perhaps, then, he’ll keep the lawyers out of it this time.

So let the war begin. It doesn’t matter who wins, because in the end, we all do.

Excerpt of the annexation/incorporation portion of Rothschild’s SOTC speech:

Annexation and Incorporation
We must address the fact that our model of unincorporated growth is neither smart nor sustainable. And let’s be honest about our history—policies that got us here will no longer work. The governmental model we have lived with for 50 years has remained static as this valley grew from 50,000 people to a million. Let’s recognize some hard facts. 84% of the people in this country now live in incorporated areas. Maricopa County is 93% incorporated. Contrast that with Pima County, which is 64% incorporated. This matters because the State shares revenue based on the percent of people living in incorporated areas. We lose out on our state-shared revenue.
We must correct this obvious imbalance. We must collect our full allotment of state-shared revenues. Our valley loses tens of millions of dollars every year to the state general fund—money that is not returned to us because of our refusal to incorporate. We can no longer allow our tax dollars to go to Phoenix. If we collect these monies, we can use them to address our long-term needs and lower our local tax rates. Lower local tax rates will lower the cost of doing business across the region. It will be good for all of us. But we must annex.

For years, we’ve heard the reasons for annexation, but we have not heard how we go about annexing. It’s simple; we have not put the necessary resources into the project.
Annexation requires 50 percent of the property owners in a qualified area to sign a petition. We will look at where annexation makes sense—where revenue sources exist to meet service area needs. We will train a small staff and a core of volunteers who will go door to door and make the case that will help bring this valley back to economic viability. I have invited the Mayors of the satellite cities in this region—Marana, Oro Valley, and Sahuarita—to join in this effort.

And for those areas that are currently unincorporated, I can tell you now that it will be cheaper and far better to join a city with an award-winning police department, fire department, water department and parks department than to strike out on your own. If you do not want to be part of an existing municipality, I invite you to consider incorporation. Incorporation is required for our economic and business survival.
We ask our county government to be a cooperative partner in this effort. Regionalism is important to our community. But regionalism will not work until we get the government structure that gives us the best chance to succeed economically. That is an incorporated valley.

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