Over the last 30 years, Pinal County taxpayers have put their money where their mouth is when it comes to improving their transportation infrastructure.  Similar to Maricopa County, Pinal residents in 1987 voted to pass a 20 year half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to transportation improvements.  In 2005, voters voted to extend this tax, with the promise that the funds would be used to connect Pinal County communities to freeways and urban centers.

Yet 10 years into the latest extension, the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority is asking an additional half-cent sales tax increase in hopes of collecting more from tax payers. They are arguing that growing infrastructure needs and “bad luck” are the reasons for the recommended tax hike. What they don’t want you to know is that mismanagement and missallocation of the transportation tax revenue is primarily responsible for the current crisis, not a lack of funds.

Transportation Dollars for Christmas Bonuses?

Under Arizona law, when a county or regional transportation authority approves an excise tax for transportation, the Arizona Office of the Auditor General has the power to review and randomly audit how benefiting jurisdictions expend the funds.  Specifically, all benefiting jurisdictions are strictly required to use transportation excise funds “for street and highway purposes or for transportation projects included in the regional transportation plan.”

In 2006, the Auditor General randomly selected Pinal County as well as several participating cities: Mammoth, Superior, and Apache Junction.  What they discovered was rampant abuse and misuse of the transportation funds in all three municipalities.  Specifically, the Town of Mammoth used transportation funds to pay employee Christmas bonuses and unknown credit card expenses.  They also failed to track employee work schedules and were unsure if some non-roadway public works projects were being improperly charged to the transportation fund.  The Town of Superior and Apache Junction had similar infractions.

The abuse has continued throughout the years.  The AG’s report in 2011 uncovered multiple towns using transportation dollars to cover deficits in other departments; a practice strictly prohibited by law.  Mammoth again was one of the biggest offenders, “borrowing” over $600,000 of restricted funds.  Superior was caught in the act as well, using $2.6 million of their transportation dollars to subsidize other city departments.  In a follow-up report, nearly three years after the previous report, neither city had rectified the deficiency in the transportation account and the Town of Superior had not even begun to make any repayments.

Finally, in this year’s Auditor General’s report,  Superior’s indiscretions were so pervasive that the State Treasurer withheld funds in 2015 for non-compliance.  Mammoth too is under threat of having its funds withheld. In addition to these financial discrepancies, Kearny, Mammoth, and Superior were all reported to have insufficient record keeping for road projects as well as inadequate planning processes for future projects.  The Auditor General has cited all these same exact problems in reports as early as 1998; suggesting a continuing problem that has yet to be corrected for over 15 years.

Pinal County Taxpayers Subsidize Municipal Road Improvements

Misuse of transportation excise tax dollars is just part of the problem. The larger issue is that the current (and proposed) transportation plan requires Pinal taxpayers in unincorporated areas to subsidize road improvements for residents living in cities and towns.

How big is the shift? According to numbers provided by the Auditor General in 2011, unincorporated Pinal County (such as San Tan Valley) received only $80 per resident, a tiny fraction when compared to what municipalities received per resident.

Jurisdiction Excise Monies Population Lane Miles $ Per Resident $ Per Lane Mile
Pinal County $30,286,896 395,776 4,229 $80 $7,161
Apache Junction $14,355,561 34,004 372 $420 $38,590
Casa Grande $11,480,528 48,571 827 $236 $13,882
Coolidge $3,543,727 11,825 411 $299 $8,622
Eloy $4,722,079 16,631 560 $283 $8,432
Florence $7,832,095 25,536 211 $307 $3,706
Kearny $1,023,665 1,950 29 $525 $35,299
Mammoth $801,983 1,426 36 $562 $22,277
Maricopa $6,219,820 43,482 509 $143 $12,219
Queen Creek $54,152 1,558 14 $35 $3,863
Superior $1,481,100 2,837 46 $522 $32,198

Overall, unincorporated residents get only 37% of the total tax allotment even though 55% of the population lives in the county.

This unfair funding distribution was not an accident. The transportation planning process in Pinal County is dominated by Mayors, Council Members and city insiders. They control the planning process, and by extension control where the money will go. So it is not surprising that a large majority of county taxpayers are subsidizing local street projects that benefit a fraction of the population, with the result being no significant road improvements being constructed for over a decade.

It is also not surprising that the new Pinal Regional Transportation Plan, funded by the proposed sales tax increase, will discriminately benefit a few select cities at the expense of unincorporated county residents.   The largest project in the plan is a parkway that runs from the east side of Apache Junction south to Florence and Coolidge.  The problem with this road design is it weaves around and excludes one of the largest unincorporated communities in all of Pinal county – San Tan Valley – approximately 90,000 residents (22% of the county population).  Other large unincorporated areas such as Gold Canyon and the Saddlebrook Retirement Community get virtually nothing from the tax increase.

Fortunately, voters will get to decide whether or not they think this latest tax increase is a good idea.  Given the past abuse and the politically driven distribution of the funds – perhaps Pinal County voters will push for a tax decrease instead.