Pinal Central Article from reporter Mark Cowling
FLORENCE — People who shop in Pinal County have been paying a half-cent sales tax to repair the roads for almost 40 years. Voters must agree to renew it every 20 years, and county officials are already making plans to put it on the ballot in the fall of 2024.
“Our system is built upon it now,” Pinal County Manager Leo Lew said. It not only benefits county roads, but municipalities receive a share for their own streets and roads based on population. In fiscal year 2021, Pinal County received $12.2 million from the tax, while the county’s cities and towns received a combined $12.5 million. Cities have come to rely on it.
“And they’ve expressed that to us, ‘If we lose this, we’re in trouble,’” Lew said. Sometimes referred to as “the pothole tax,” it is also called TIMP because it funds the county’s Transportation Improvement and Maintenance Program. If voters don’t renew it, the tax expires at the end of the calendar year 2026.
It is entirely different than the half-cent sales tax voters rejected in November, Proposition 469, to fund the Pinal Regional Transportation Authority. The PRTA was intended to build major connectors and other key roads on a larger scale.
TIMP pays for smaller projects. It’s been used to improve Hunt Highway; McCartney Road from Interstate 10 to Overfield Road; and Florence-Kelvin Highway, Assistant County Engineer Celeste Garza said.
The county partners with local communities for more spending power, Pinal Public Works Director Andrew Smith said. But more recently, “We’ve shifted our mentality from trying to do new improvements to saving what we have,” Garza said.
Joe Ortiz, deputy director of Public Works, said county roads have an average grade of 62, the equivalent of a C- or D. “Our analytical reports are telling us we have to spend $13 million a year just to keep that grade of C- or D,” Ortiz said. “We’re not improving that grade, we’re just trying to keep status quo. … We’re always trying to play catch-up and Band-Aid.”
Smith said the tax was originally passed to supplement the 19-cent per gallon gas tax — the source of the state’s Highway User Revenue Funds — which hasn’t increased in 30 years. Pinal doesn’t even get the full 19 cents because it first goes to the federal government, which keeps 3%, and the state keeps a share as well.
Lew said HURF isn’t keeping pace with the need, thanks to greater fuel efficiency and electric vehicles. He and other Pinal officials said local residents can still help by buying gas in Pinal County.
People often ask what they’re paying property tax for, but “your property tax doesn’t have anything to do with roads,” Smith said. Lew said it could fund roads, but Pinal doesn’t levy property tax for that. “Otherwise, we would levy a different amount.”
A decade ago, the county had 1,200 miles of dirt or gravel roads and 800 miles of paved road. “Now’s flipped — we have almost 1,200 miles of paved road … and paved roads are a lot more(expensive) to maintain,” Ortiz said. Garza added Pinal had paved roads in response to air quality concerns.
If the tax were to fail, people “are going to see potholes,” Ortiz said. “They’re going to see their roads deteriorate even faster.” Garza said chip seal surfaces could be lost in some areas, “takingroads back to dirt.”
Ortiz said economic development is affected when the county can’t fix roads. Lew said, “For people who want to have good jobs closer to home and not have to drive outside of the county … that’s what we’re aiming for.”
A half-cent sales tax was calculated to cost a family of four $12 to $13 per month back in 2017, Smith said.
Since the last time the TIMP tax was approved, Pinal County has collected $81 million for roads, not including the amounts claimed by cities and towns. Casa Grande has collected more than $ 38 million; the city of Maricopa almost $30 million; and Florence $22.5 million. The county’s smallest towns also receive their share, with Kearny collecting more than $2 million and Mammoth receiving$1.7 million.
Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley, and the surrounding area. He can be reached at [email protected].