Pima County still paying for lost sewer plant

TUCSON, AZ - Pima County is being forced to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt payments on a sewer treatment plant in Marana even though the town now owns the property.

Marana gained control of the property in January after it pushed lawmakers to pass a law allowing it take over the county's Marana Wastewater Reclamation Facility. The law said the town would be responsible for the outstanding debt on the plant -- about $16.5 million including interest.

But the county is challenging the constitutionality of the state law in court. As part of the case, a Maricopa County Superior Court judge extended the deadline for Marana to make the bond payments multiple times.

In the meantime, Pima County was responsible for a $453,000 principal payment and a $258,000 interest payment due to bondholders July 1, and will be on the hook for more next year.

Marana's repayments to Pima County are currently postponed until March 1, 2013, town spokesman Rodney Campbell told the Daily Star. But the delay doesn't affect the due date on the loan installment, which the county paid to avoid a default that would have affected the Pima County's credit rating.

Once the case is resolved, the county will ask that the town reimburse it for the payments, plus interest, county administrator Chuck Huckelberry said.

By March 1, Pima County will have made an additional $250,000 interest payment on the sewer plant. Another $665,000 payment is due in July.

The town began its efforts to wrestle control of the plant in 2007, when it cut short a decades-old intergovernmental agreement calling for the county to provide service to Marana residents. It then sued the county and won rights to some of its wastewater, and annexed the plant.

Marana wanted to take over its sewer system and the plant so it could control the wastewater coming from the plant. Even though it is reclaimed water, controlling the effluent would allow the town to offset increased pumping by using the plant's discharge to percolate into the ground.

Such disputes are expected to become more common as growing populations in Arizona stress groundwater supplies. State law regulates groundwater pumping to prevent overdraws that would deplete the supply.

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