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Committee proposed to study shift of county lines in southern Arizona

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State lawmakers took the first steps Thursday to what eventually could lead to putting portions of eastern Santa Cruz County into Cochise County.

Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, said residents of the Sonoita area believe their taxes are too high and their services, like access to the justice of the peace court, have been cut. They also have complained that county officials do not promote the developing wine industry in the area.

Gail Griffin

Gail Griffin

“This is strictly a study committee to address the issues that they feel that they’re not treated fairly and not getting the attention that they would like,” Griffin said. But she made it clear that one purpose of this committee being created by HB 2486, given preliminary approval by the House, is to explore what it would take to simply move the line that divides the two counties, making the eastern section of Santa Cruz the new western part of Cochise.

“They seem to think that they have more in common with the adjoining county,” Griffin said of the residents who are complaining.

Griffin told colleagues that the complaints are largely coming from residents of the Sonoita area.

They are unhappy because the justice of the peace court, formerly located in the community, was moved to Nogales in what county officials said was a money-saving move. Griffin said roads also are an issue and increasing taxes.

“And not being able to communicate,” she said.

Griffin also said that a meeting she attended was standing room only, with everyone there apparently agreeing with the idea that the area should be split off from Santa Cruz County.

All that left Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, unimpressed.

“Folks could certainly address their issues related to the JP court, the roads, the taxes by speaking to their local elected officials and addressing the concerns that they have,” she said. And Blanc said the ultimate power of the residents is to vote for who they want on the board of supervisors.

Isela Blanc

Isela Blanc

Blanc also said her own inquiries lead her to believe that the real issue is that the residents are unhappy with their taxes.

“Are we going to ask for study committees every time a resident of a certain county is dissatisfied with their responsibilities as community members, having to pay taxes?” she asked.

“I don’t think it’s an appropriate response addressing people’s concerns when those people can go straight to their elected officials in those counties, in those communities to ask for information,” Blanc continued. “Do we really need a study committee every time somebody throws a fit because they’re paying a little bit more or less in taxes?”

But Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, objected to the characterization that the Sonoita taxpayers were “throwing a fit,” saying the residents are doing exactly what they’re entitled to do.

He pointed out that counties, under the Arizona Constitution, are administrative arms of the state.

“When we have a collection of constituents who don’t believe they’ve been treated fairly, who else are they to turn to?” he asked.

While Griffin said the committee is going to address the issues of the residents, that’s not the way HB 2486 sets it up.

It requires several of the public who would be appointed by legislative leaders to be “knowledgeable about county boundaries.” And the panel is charged with researching and reporting on “the fiscal and related impacts of a change in the county boundary line,” with a report due by June 30, 2020.

Those issues are complex, including how to deal with existing debts and obligations of each county. Ultimately, a county line can be moved only with an act of the Legislature.

If the Sonoita residents think they’re taxes will drop by suddenly becoming Cochise County residents they may be in for a rude surprise.

The Arizona Tax Research Association reports the current primary property tax in Santa Cruz County is $4.85 per $100 of assessed valuation, with a secondary rate of 88 cents. For Cochise County the primary rate is $5.55, with a 50-cent-per-$100 valuation for secondary taxes.

The measure now needs a roll-call vote before going to the Senate.

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