Bill would allow border cities to raise spending limits
PHOENIX - A bill sponsored by a Yuma lawmaker would allow border cities such as San Luis, Ariz., to include a portion of visitors from Mexico in their populations for purposes of calculating expenditure limits.
Border city officials and other supporters of the bill sponsored by Rep. James Carruthers say the change will allow the cities to spend more than they are currently able to, which will help with upkeep of infrastructure affected by visitors from Mexico.
But the bill's opponents say it's unfair to offer some towns special recognition when all of Arizona is impacted by its proximity to Mexico.
Carruthers' bill would allow towns and cities within eight miles of the border and with a population of less than 35,000 to include in their population count half the people entering the country from Mexico through the nearest port of entry.
Mexican entrants cause wear and tear on public property that the cities can't afford to repair with their current spending limits, said Kevin Adam, legislative director for the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.
"In a city of 20,000 like Nogales (Arizona) you have a city of 100,000 right across the border in Nogales, Sonora. Many of those folks are coming across on a daily basis and you have traffic coming in from all over Mexico," Adam said.
"You have hundreds of thousands of people coming over every day and that effects the entire infrastructure."
The Economic Estimates Commission currently determines how much a city is allowed to spend in a given year. The annual expenditure limit for each city is based on the amount of local revenues in the base year, 1979, which is then adjusted for population and inflation.
The current equation limits cities to spending that doesn't reflect the amount of services they must provide for the influx of visitors, Adams said, and also keeps cities from embarking on major improvement projects that would push them over the expenditure cap.
"Cities evolve and change over time. It's extremely rigid as it is now," Adam said. "If you were a city with a population of 5,000 in 1979, you may not have wanted to build a community center or a library, but as you grow larger there's demand for these types of things."
Cities that violate their expenditure limits face heavy fines from the state.
"The city can essentially raise more revenue than they can spend as it is right now," Adam said.
In San Luis, nearly 50,000 people cross through the port of entry each day during peak seasons, said San Luis Mayor Gillermina Fuentes.
"It's the same thing that affects all the frontiers," Fuentes said. "They are using everything."
Fuentes could not say if San Luis would actually spend more if its expenditure limits were to be lifted.
The city of Nogales' charter allows that Southern Arizona town to exceed the spending limit, but it must have voter approval every four years.
If voters failed to do so the city would be in serious financial trouble, said Nogales City Councilman Ignacio Barraza.
Nogales is operating on an $80 million fiscal budget but the number allowed by the state is around $16 million, Barraza said.
"I would hate to be bound to the state's rule. We would be in a terrible bind," Barraza said.
Nogales' population can quadruple on any given day, and while the visitors pump money into the local economy they also use roads and other infrastructure, Barraza said.
The bill would only affect the expenditure limits and wouldn't bring any additional state aid or other population-based funds, but city officials say that it could influence future claims for state-shared revenue.
However, Barraza said that if legislators acknowledge the impact of the influx from Mexico on how much cities are allowed to spend than it could later lead to an increase in the amount border towns get from state revenue sharing.
"It's a start. If we are at least able to count them," Barraza said, "at least they would be identifying the impact they have on the community."
In Bisbee, which lies just inside the potentially affected area, the impact is amplified because many of the people crossing the border aren't stopping to shop and eat, but they are using roads, emergency services and other city facilities, said Bisbee Mayor Dan Beauchamp.
The problem in Bisbee is not that they can't spend enough, it's that there isn't enough to spend, Beauchamp said.
Beauchamp also said he hopes that the Legislature will one day take the extra wear caused by the influx from Mexico into consideration when dispersing state monies.
"I think it's a good idea but I would much more prefer seeing some actual dollars come in," Beauchamp said.
A nearly identical bill introduced last year would have increased expenditure limits for border cities, but it died after being held up in the House Appropriations Committee
House Appropriations Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said he hopes the bill will fail again.
Pearce said the bill is a thinly veiled attempt from cities along the border to make a case for more state shared revenue in the future and is unfair to other counties that also absorb the impact of visitors from Mexico.
"It's bad, bad policy. Every county in this state is impacted by illegal immigration," Pearce said. "Do we just go ahead and start counting all of North Mexico?"
The expenditure laws were amended a few years ago to allow border counties to include half the people entering into the county from Mexico when the state sets their expenditure limits.
Bob Purvis covers rural and suburban issues at the state Legislature full-time for the University of Arizona Journalism Department's Community News Service, serving 80 newspapers around the state, including The Sun.