County reaches debt deal with South Tucson - Tucson News Now

County reaches debt deal with South Tucson

TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

For several years dating to the late 90's, South Tucson would send all of its prisoners to the Pima County jail and not pay for it.  As of June 30, South Tucson owed $1.9 million to the county.

South Tucson's expenses could easily top $25,000 a month and there was never enough in the city's budget to pay for it. Especially during the recession which hit the town hard beginning in 2007.

The town depends on sales taxes to raise revenue and no one was buying, especially in the one-square-mile city which has a high poverty rate.  So the town laid off people, cut the police force, cut salaries and sent people home on non-paid holidays.

And it ignored the county.  But Pima County didn't ignore South Tucson.

In a trail of letters dating to 2009, Pima County demanded payment.  It even charged interest on the debt, which amounted to $545,000.  Finally it seems, a resolution has been reached.

The Pima County Administrator will recommend forgiving the interest and another $200,000 in a records dispute.  South Tucson will still be on the hook for $1.2 million.

If the agreement is approved by both governing bodies, which should be in about 30 days, South Tucson will repay about $8,000 a month for ten years.

"We're proud to be able to work out a deal and repay our debt," says acting South Tucson city manager Luis Gonzales. "To send out a message that South Tucson pays its debt."

Part of the reason why paying the debt is so important is because the town is looking to improve its economic base and couldn't do so with the debt looming overhead.

"It puts in the eyes of the people who want to invest in South Tucson our risks are lower than they might have perceived," Gonzales says.

"It's an equitable solution to a long and lingering problem," says Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

South Tucson has been able to pay its jail expenses for the past year because their debt load has dropped.

A study showed South Tucson was arresting three times more criminals per capita than the city of Tucson and 19 times more than Oro Valley.  By cutting back on the number of arrests and sending those arrested to adult diversion, the small town has cut its monthly bill to $10,000.

That's a substantial drop for a town with an annual budget of only $10 million.

The city, one of the most impoverished in the state, took several measures to drop its jail obligations.

It has a 24 hour legal service now which can handle cases quickly, instead of languishing for days.

People who are arrested can be offered adult diversion, work release and other programs rather than incarceration.

And when they are put in jail, it may be for shorter periods.

"I think one of the things is that people where staying in jail too long," he says.

"In those cases where the crime doesn't fit for a week in jail, it might be two days instead of a week," Gonzales says.

Still, Gonzales says the town is arrested nearly the same number of people.

He also adds, about 70% of the people arrested in the city are not residents of the city.

If a person is arrested on a warrant, the town or city which issued the warrant will be billed. South Tucson will not foot the bill.

With a recovering economy and a cut in costs, the town has been able to meet its debt obligations.

"We hope to have this agreement signed in two weeks" Gonzales says. "It's time to get this settled and move on."

When the county forgave a portion of the debt owed the county, it also revealed those who were also behind in payments and FC Tucson was listed among them. 

The list is not specific as to why the soccer team has fallen behind in its payments, only that the county has not been paid for some FC Tucson events.

The soccer team has been a part of Tucson since 2010, and is responsible for bringing other professional teams to train here, as well as the highly successful Desert Diamond Cup. 

The County Board did not single out the team, but depending on who is talked to on the county board, varying levels of concern are present.

"Well FC Tucson is like anybody else, they make money during the training season and the rest of the year it is pretty sparse.   We expect this to occur," said Chuck Huckelberry, County Administrator. "But we also expect to be paid fully."

Ray Carroll stated, "I give them a little bit of leeway in their collectable's.  I'm concerned, but I'm also hopeful that soccer will be good to this community in the end."

Tucson News Now spoke with the owner of FC Tucson, Greg Foster and he stated the document was three months old, and that the bill is nearly paid off and will be very close by the end of the month when the next county report comes out.

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