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Water Wars

Tucson’s recall election of January 1977 had all the sense and feel of a mob lynching rather than an exercise in representative democracy.

Three members of the city council were trounced and booted from office. They were guilty only of serving the public, conserving water and doing the right thing. A fourth council member also would have been kicked out if he had not resigned to take a job in Fort. Lauderdale. The three were Margot Garcia, Doug Kennedy and Barbara Weymann. Bob Cauthorn took a $30,000-a-year job as director of community services for Broward County.

These four constituted a majority and voted in June 1976 to raise water rates by about 33 percent. The rates varied throughout the city as the goal was to charge rates that reflected the costs of service. Previous water rates were calculated by dividing the cost equally among all customers. Some saw their water rates drop. Those customers did not fuss when they received their July water bills. Those who received increases, however, howled like banshees.

The problem was rapid growth, and the council majority was playing catch-up because previous councils had failed to increase rates sufficiently. The growth was extraordinary. Tucson grew more pavement than creosote. Some worried. A political movement gained momentum in the 1970s, that maintained growth should be guided rather than helter-skelter.

Cauthorn, a former University of Arizona professor of economics, and Weymann, a former programmer at Kitt Peak Observatory, were elected to the council in 1973. Kennedy, who was a part-time finance instructor at the University of Arizona, and Garcia, who was a community activist, were elected in 1975. This gave the New Democrats a majority on the city council.

The New Democrats argued that growth should be controlled or directed. Developers and real estate brokers disagreed. The line was thus drawn between pro-growth groups and controlled-growth advocates.

The tenor of the time nearly 40 years ago is difficult to capture. Ed Abbey, an Arizonan, novelist and essayist, represented the anti-developer view in a long lead piece for the New York Times Magazine (May 16, 1976) titled “The Blob Comes to Arizona.” This was the subhead: “The home of the scorpion, the tarantula and three species of poisonous lizard namely the Gila monster, the land speculator and the real estate broker.”  Developers were routinely considered land rapists by their opponents. Similarly, the pro-development community accused “no growthers” of stealing food from the mouths of babes and advocating stagnation, which would lead to rot and poverty. It was a time of name-calling, nay-saying and bumper-sticker labels. Those who preached reason — however few and far between — might as well have been speaking Swahili.

Some in this so-called debate claimed there was a water shortage. No one could prove it. It was a fact that the water table was dropping. The problem wasn’t so much the alleged shortage as the water utility’s ability to provide service to the flood of new residents. Tucson Water was running out of adequate infrastructure.

Water was and will always be the key to Tucson’s growth. The city bought the privately owned Tucson Water Company in 1900. Since then it has sold bonds to finance the system. The loans have been paid back through revenues generated by water-rate payers. Voters have usually approved election bond issues by hefty margins.

The New Democrats voted on June 7, 1976, to increase water rates by about third. Before that, the council was presented with a report that estimated rates would have to jump 400 percent to accommodate growth. At about the same time, Tucson Gas & Electric impose a steep rate increase that boosted Tucson Water expenses because it used electricity to deliver water uphill. Considering that city wells usually were located on bottom land, this expense increase was significant.

The majority Democrats were opposed by two of their Democratic brethren and the mayor, Lew Murphy, he of the booming, mellifluous voice and mindless Chamber of Commerce mien. Murphy was tall, with a silver mane. He looked and  sounded like a mayor. But he did nothing of note in his 16-year tenure except cut ribbons and let his voice boom ineffectually toward the heavens. An overpass is named for him, The two other Democrats were Rudy Castro and Rueben Romero. They said they were concerned that their constituents could not pay higher rates.

The new rate structure approved by the New Democrats in June went into effect immediately, showing up on the July water bills. The collective howl was deafening.

Great opposition came from the Catalina Foothills because the council majority imposed lift fees. This was a wholly new policy. It required customers to pay the actual cost of pumping water uphill. In some cases, the expense was high indeed. There were 10 lift zones and the fee was 20 cents per 100 cubic feet of water per lift zone. The bill for a Foothills water user in zone 8 jumped from $36.27 to $115.27 per month.

Jack Fitzgerald, a retailer with a loud, screechy voice who appeared regularly in annoying local commercials, became one of two leaders of the recall. John Varga, who taught electronics at Pima College, also popped up from nowhere. Although he denied interest in political office, he later ran for mayor. Murphy beat him handily.

The foothills water users, of course, had no say in the business of the city water utility. They made up less than 15 percent of the customer base, but they made lots of noise. Conrad Joyner, a County supervisor and professor of political science, noted that a constituent’s monthly bill increased $210, and declared that amounted to taxation without representation. While it had a nice ring to it and Joyner refrained from a call to arms, there were no taxes involved. It was a fee for service. Such details didn’t matter. The opposition was not rational.

County Supervisor Joe Castillo charged that the council members had violated the open meetings law. Supervisor Bud Walker demanded an investigation — into what, he didn’t say. But the message was clear: the council majority had committed a crime, albeit nebulous, and there was no smoking gun. Developers and homebuilders complained that paying the costs of service would increase housing costs. Eventually, this accusation would be a fact, with the imposition of  impact fees. But such expenses were not at issue in the recall campaign. The homebuilders’ association employed a small legion of public relations personnel. The warning that government actions would lead to increased housing costs became a ritual incantation.

In August, after the full brunt of the July water bills had been digested and made a good many customers  madder than hell, the mayor and council rescinded the lift charge. It was done to soften the blow. Nonetheless, it did away with the principle that customers should pay the actual cost of service. Garcia says in hindsight the structure of the lift charges was too complex. Customers could not figure their bills. The complex structure reflected an effort to account for particular service levels and in the process became too difficult for customers to understand.

The January 1977 election recalled the perpetrators of the increase and also added three council members who declared they would fulfill their campaign promise and immediately roll back the rates. A fourth newly elected member never committed to the cut. The three had Rudy Castro’s support, and they sought to make the rate decrease their first act. But the mayor, who had supported the recall and opposed the rate increase suddenly reversed his position. A rollback wasn’t possible, he said.

A rollback meant that Tucson Water could not pay off bondholders, he said. What he did not say was that if Tucson Water’s reputation and ratings among bondholders were degraded, the resulting dark view would put the city’s ability to issue general obligation bonds —to build roads, buildings and other projects — at great risk.

City Manager Joel Valdez pointed out that if the council rescinded the increase, Tucson Water likely could not meet a commitment to pay back nearly $1.5 million in debt. At first, the  vengeance-seeking council members said the problems would be worked out and the rates would fall. It never happened. The full weight of the real world trumped the mob, which had lynched three innocent council members.

Rates never came down. And the entire region changed in just a few months. Lush green lawns faded to brown. Desert landscaping became the norm. Tucson became a national leader in water conservation. The four New Democrats never held further political office, nor did their replacements on the city council.  After his fourth term, Lew Murphy retired his scissors and left his 10th-floor office at City Hall.

More than mere conservation, the decision by Cauthorn, Weymann, Garcia and Kennedy created a strong consensus that the region had to be vigilant and protect its most precious resource.

    Bob Cauthorn returned to Tucson in retirement a widower and married Joan Kay. Margot Garcia received a doctorate in environmental planning and water policy from the University of Arizona. She retired from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, professor emeritus. She continued to live in Tucson and commuted while teaching. Doug Kennedy went on to become a Tucson real estate developer. Barbara Weymann, the first woman to serve on the city council, became head of the Tucson YWCA and moved in 1986 to Southern California where she worked for Jet Propulsion Laboratories.


October 31, 2011

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