The bottom line is that Maricopa County and its political subdivisions are losing tens of millions of dollars annually in property-tax revenue because the Assessor's Office is understaffed and underfunded, Corpstein says. While this may produce a nice tax break for some property owners, particularly commercial property holders, it creates a disastrous financial situation for the county government.

The Board of Supervisors is finally beginning to address problems in the Assessor's Office, and has started considering the addition of employees and computer capacity. So far, however, Corpstein has been forced to borrow personnel and computer equipment from other county agencies.

And even if the county's tax-assessing and -collecting operation is reformed, there will still be tax-revenue problems at the county level. Those problems have been created by the State of Arizona.

@rule:
@body:While attempting, largely unsuccessfully, to deal with its internal problems, the County Assessor's Office also has watched as the state legislature and the Department of Revenue have stripped Maricopa County of huge amounts of its property-tax base.

Recent reductions in the assessed value of utilities, mines and railroads by the Department of Revenue, along with a legislative tax break for owners of rental property over the last three years, have already cut tax revenue due the county government by $10 million per year. (These state actions have cost local governments in Maricopa County $75 million in annual tax collections.)

The property-tax breaks for utilities mean an increase in taxes for other property taxpayers, particularly homeowners and nonutility businesses. In 1980, utilities, homeowners and businesses each paid about 26 percent of the state's property taxes. By 1992, the utilities share had dropped to 18 percent while those of homeowners and businesses had increased to 32 percent.

"It's a shift of taxes by the legislature, and it's hidden," County Treasurer Doug Todd says.

Consequently, any increase in Maricopa County property taxes forced by the current debt crisis will hit homeowners and businesses far harder than it will some of the county's largest taxpayers, including Arizona Public Service Company, U S West and several out-of-state utilities, Corpstein says.

While homeowners should begin bracing themselves for a property-tax jolt, utility companies are enjoying millions of dollars in property-tax reductions.

The biggest single beneficiary of the utility tax breaks in Maricopa County is the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, which is more than 50 percent owned by out-of-state utilities (see story on page 22).

If the operators of the nation's largest nuclear generating plant were paying property taxes at the rate that utilities paid in 1979, Maricopa County's government would be collecting an additional $21.5 million per year, Corpstein says and public documents confirm.

The utility tax break was equal to 9 percent of the Maricopa County government's $236 million in property-tax collections last year and, if that break were eliminated, the increased tax revenue would go a long way toward patching the county's operating deficit.

The reduction in property taxes paid by utilities also directly impacts public schools, community colleges, flood-control districts, the library system and cities and towns within Maricopa County. All of these entities levy property taxes separately from county government.

While it remains to be seen whether county government will somehow avoid raising property taxes when rates are set in August, Todd says some of these other taxing districts--particularly school districts--almost certainly will try to recoup the loss of utility property-tax revenue by raising their tax rates.

The result will be rising overall property taxes for homeowners and small businesses, he says. And if county government must raise its property-tax rate to address its debt problem, the impact on homeowners and businesses will be even greater.

And the tax breaks for utilities are not over. Led by lobbyists from APS and U S West, whose former chief lobbyist is now Governor Fife Symington's top legislative aide, utilities won yet another round of property-tax reductions last month from the legislature. After the new legislative tax cuts are phased in over five years, utilities will see their property-tax bills to Maricopa County government drop by another $8 million per year, with about $6 million in reductions for Palo Verde alone.

"It's going to be difficult for the county to increase revenues with the [tax] changes the legislature has made," Todd says.

@rule:
@body:With the Assessor's Office years away from becoming an efficient revenue producer, and the county's property-tax base being continually eroded by the state legislature, the supervisors are once again turning to their favorite crutch to get them out of a financial bind: debt.

On April 18, supervisors listened to a fast-talking presentation by their outside financial adviser, Larry S. Given of Peacock Hislop Staley & Given, the firm that employs Bayless as a vice president.

Basically, Given was suggesting new ways the county could try to borrow its way out of trouble.

First, Given told the supervisors, they should refinance millions of dollars in general obligation bonds that were issued in 1986 for public works projects. Essentially, he was saying, the county could put off $25 million in bond payments due next year and use that money to cut its deficit. The $25 million, of course, would still have to be paid eventually.

Further suggestions under the Peacock Plan would have the county build a new, downtown administration building (at an unstated cost) to save $2 million to $3 million per year it now spends leasing private office space.

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