County line

A sign on State Route 82 marks the dividing line between Cochise and Santa Cruz counties. A newly formed legislative committee will explore the possibility of moving the line west, to bring areas of Eastern Santa Cruz County into Cochise.

A Southern Arizona lawmaker has found a new way to pursue her plans to see if parts of Santa Cruz County should be merged with Cochise County, despite being rebuffed by her colleagues.

Rep. Gail Griffin (R-Hereford), who represents Cochise County as part of Legislative District 14, has convinced legislative leaders to form a special committee to study what would happen if the line between the two counties was moved. Griffin has specifically been interested in moving the Sonoita and Elgin areas of Santa Cruz County into Cochise.

The goal of that committee is exactly what was behind Griffin's HB 2486 which she shepherded through the House earlier this year on a 31-29 party-line vote.

But the measure died when Sen. Andrea Dalessandro (D-Green Valley), who represents Santa Cruz County as part of LD2, convinced several Republicans to join with Democrats and oppose it on financial grounds, citing what could happen to what would remain of Santa Cruz County if part of its tax base was stripped away.

“The remaining ranchers in the rest of the county, who are mostly Republicans, will be paying more property tax,” she told colleagues at the time. Ditto, she said, of the produce industry that is centered in Nogales and Rio Rico.

But Griffin told Capitol Media Services on Tuesday she still believes the study is necessary “to surface the issues the local community has so they can be addressed.”

“Lots of discussion will take place to help provide solutions for the citizens in the area,” she said.

Dalessandro, for her part, said she was “disappointed” in the decision of the Republican legislative leadership to form the study committee, particularly in the wake of the defeat of legislation that would have done the same thing.

In proposing the original legislation, Griffin said that residents of the eastern portion of Santa Cruz County “feel that they're not treated fairly and not getting the attention that they would like.”

Many of the complaints, Griffin told colleagues, are coming from residents of the Sonoita area.

Among the issue is that the justice of the peace court, formerly located in the community, was moved to Nogales in what county officials said was a money-saving move. Griffin said roads are also an issue, as are increasing taxes.

"And not being able to communicate,” she said.

Dalessandro, however, questioned whether there really are such widespread problems to pursue the unusual step of moving a county line.

“I suspect that it is just a small group of vocal people that want this annexation,” she said.

Dalessandro said she is looking to survey the residents of her district – both inside the area that might be split off and what would remain of the rest of the county – to gauge their feelings.

Griffin said she thinks the idea is popular.

“The meetings I attended were standing room only,” she said. And Griffin said that area residents “feel they have more in common with Cochise County.”

That, however, raises another question: Does Cochise County want to take in all of those people and be responsible for providing services to them?

Several of the non-legislative members of the committee appear to represent those who have been actively pushing for county boundary realignment. That includes both the chair and a member of the Sonoita-Elgin Community Group.

“Problems with our county government persist to include the board of supervisors’ recent vote to raise property taxes for the sixth year in a row along with the proposed new health code changes, which include significant fees and fines which has the potential to negatively impact our local businesses including wineries and future development,” David Green, the group’s founder, said in a news release heralding the committee’s formation.

But the committee does include Dalessandro along with some people who would generally be considered neutral participants. One of those is Jennifer Stielow, vice president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, which tends to lobby against any measure that will increase property taxes, particularly for businesses.

The committee is supposed to report its findings back to legislative leaders at the end of 2020.

Even if the majority supports changing the county boundaries, that, by itself, is legally meaningless. Only the Legislature can authorize such a change.

And even if there is a sentiment for such a move, there are a host of other issues that need to be resolved.

The most significant of these would be financial, ranging from who gets possession of which pieces of Santa Cruz County equipment and property, to how to divide up any debt.

Griffin said there are other issues to be considered, including whether a change in county lines will lead to increased economic opportunities and improved marketing of agricultural products.

In a statement released Tuesday, Santa Cruz County Supervisor Bruce Bracker, whose district includes the affected area, said he doesn't believe that realigning the county boundaries is the answer.

“A tremendous amount of effort and resources are being spent by those that would have us be divided,” he said. ”I would prefer to see that attention and resources focused on addressing the issues of our community to find solutions that are a benefit to all and unite us, not divide us.”

Bracker said that “constructive criticism is always welcome,” adding a promise to address the concerns of all parts of the county.

“We have so much going for us at this time and we could use the help in leveraging our economic development to attract new and diverse investment, create permanent jobs and help our local businesses grow,” he said.

The decision to form the legislative committee was made last week without publicity. But Matt Specht, press aide to House Speaker Russell Bowers, said there was no attempt to hide it from the public.

“We typically don't put out press releases on ad hoc committees until the details of the first meeting have been set,” he said. And Specht said that it appears that the committee won't convene until sometime in late October.

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