If there is a lesson to be learned from Pima County Sewer War III it is that Marana is not interested in the benefits of regionalism.
The Board of Supervisors Tuesday approved a settlement with the town of Marana, officially ending PCSWIII. The settlement is technically a victory for Marana. It asserted in 2007 that it wanted control of the sewage generated in its town and this settlement gives it to them.
But Marana also wanted a county sewage processing plant in Marana and just assumed it could take it over. The county said, “not without paying for it.” A couple of expensive lawsuits and a couple of ridiculous laws intended to aid Marana later, Marana has to pay up.
The settlement requires Marana to pay $18 million for the right to process its own, um…well, you know.
The settlement is a step backward for regionalism, which is supposed to end duplication of government services and achieve economies-of-scale savings for taxpayers.
The first step toward regionalism was Pima County Sewer War I, fought in the 1970s between the county and Tucson over control of effluent, the watery byproduct of sewage processing.
Changes in federal and state law in the early 1970s made effluent a valuable commodity. Governments needed it to keep pumping water out of the ground because the new laws required ground water to be replaced, one way or another.
Pouring effluent back into the ground was a way to achieve that (if it weren’t for effluent there’d be precious few golf courses in Pima County).
The city and county entered into a deal in 1979 that made the county the grand poobah of poop. The county took over the city’s system and became the county’s sole sewage processor. In exchange, the city got control over 90 percent of the effluent produced.
That immediately prompted Pima County Sewer War II, after Marana, Oro Valley and several other smaller water and irrigation districts objected to the city getting nearly all the effluent. Too keep pumping, they needed the effluent, too. Tucson also filed suit against the the county in 1990s over a dispute about effluent at Randolph golf course, which got rolled into PCSWII.
That lawsuit, or series of lawsuits, dragged out until 2000, when everyone in the region agreed to play nice over regional water and sewer policies.
The sewer peace lasted only seven years when Marana said the county was raining on its growth parade by not agreeing to extend sewer pipes into new town developments (a claim the county denies).
Marana withdrew from the 1979 covenant and when the county refused to give it what it wanted, it sued. It also enlisted the aid of several local legislators, namely former Rep. Terri Proud and former Sen. Frank Antenori.
They got laws passed to force the county to give the sewer plant to Marana. After a judge and an appellate court ruled that Marana had to pay for it, the county offered a compromise: If Marana got the Legislature to repeal the silly laws and its voters to OK paying for the plant, it could have the plant (and a smaller one nearby) for below market rate by taking over the debt owed on them.
So, in the end, Marana wins. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory. Marana residents will soon find out that a few rate payers paying for a small sewer system is a lot more expensive than hundreds of thousands of rate payers paying for a big one.
Sticker shock is imminent.
The chances of other jurisdictions, Oro Valley, or perhaps Vail, if it’s successful incorporating, going their own sewer way are slim, so the damage to regionalism might be overstated.
But if the existing regionalism embodied in the Regional Transportation Authority and the county’s bond program is to be continued, and if there are to be regional solutions for water delivery and parks and recreation services, Marana has to be a willing participant. Marana taking its sewer toys and going home is not a good omen for its continued regional cooperation.
Marana, though, has always been the region’s biggest crybaby, complaining off and on over the years that the county and the rest of the region’s communities are out to screw ‘em, from bitching about delayed construction of river dikes to not enough regional road construction funds to receiving too few county bond projects and to refusing to participate in the open space conservation plan.
Marana now has control of its water and economic future . Bully for Marana. But its residents may soon find that the price it has to pay for that control is far from worth it.
And everyone else in the county may soon find that Marana’s go-it-alone approach is damaging to all.