How water bills stack up in Scottsdale vs. Rio Verde Foothills as cutoff continues

Sasha Hupka
Arizona Republic

Corrections & clarifications: The name of the Maricopa Association of Governments was incorrect in an earlier version of this article.

For weeks, Scottsdale has vehemently justified its decision to cut water to a nearby unincorporated community.

As Maricopa County and city officials have butted heads over potential solutions, both sides have offered numerous reasons why they've failed to reach an agreement — and why the city turned off the taps in the first place.

One of them is money.

Scottsdale officials have long cast residents of Rio Verde Foothills, a community located just east of the city's northern neighborhoods, as county interlopers sucking their water supply without paying toward any of the city's water infrastructure.

"The mega drought tells us all — water is NOT a compassion game," Scottsdale Mayor David Ortega wrote in a December statement.

Meanwhile, Maricopa County's Board of Supervisors refused a proposal from Scottsdale in early March that would have temporarily restored Rio Verde Foothills residents' access to a standpipe that many relied on for years, citing "exorbitant" costs.

“The proposed (agreement) is just a poison pill of roadblocks," said Supervisor Tom Galvin, who represents a district encompassing both Rio Verde Foothills and Scottsdale. "It’s truly government bureaucracy at its worst."

The Republic found two houses with similar market values — one in north Scottsdale, the other in Rio Verde Foothills — and analyzed the costs of each with an eye to water costs and property taxes.

The findings show that before the cutoff, Rio Verde Foothills residents paid more for less water than Scottsdale residents did.

But they saved on property taxes, which don't finance Scottsdale's water operations but do fund other city services. The city's current primary property tax rate, which funds services like roads and parks, is $0.4970 per $100 of a property's assessed value. Its secondary tax rate, which helps pay down city debt, currently sits at $0.4101 per $100.

Under rates before the cutoff, it took about eight years for each newly built house in Rio Verde Foothills to catch up to what a new Scottsdale house paid into the city's water system, assuming both were occupied by a family of four using an average amount of water.

That's because of an upfront development charge on new construction in Scottsdale, which the city uses to help fund its water infrastructure.

Even under the new rates proposed by Scottsdale to continue temporarily serving the community, it would still take owners of a new Rio Verde Foothills house a little over a year to catch up to the same amount in total water rates and fees as owners of a new house within city boundaries.

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2 houses. Same ZIP code. Different jurisdictions.

Both houses selected for this story were valued at about $600,000 in market price by the Maricopa County Assessor's Office in 2022, the most recent year for which a full tax breakdown is publicly available.

The first, located in the Desert Crown subdivision, is about 2,400 square feet and located on a little over an acre of land. Built in 1999, it is a two-story house with an attached garage and a pool. Currently, for assessment year 2024, it's assessed at slightly more than $1 million in market value.

The other is about 3 miles away and in the same ZIP code, 85262, which crosses city boundaries. It is a larger house on a larger lot, built in 2007, coming in at just over 3,100 square feet of living space on two acres. It is a single-story home with a pool and attached garage, as well as several patios. For assessment year 2024, that house is currently valued at $960,000.

Both are under the $1.2 million average market value for houses in that ZIP code at the end of 2022, according to the Arizona Regional Multiple Listing Service. But that number is inflated because the area includes Troon North, a golf community where sprawling mansions regularly sell for millions of dollars.

In Rio Verde Foothills, 222 homes sold in 2022 with an average price of $797,000, according to data provided by the Maricopa Association of Governments.

The homes analyzed by The Republic are valued similarly despite their different sizes and amenities because assessments are based on a variety of property characteristics that can change between neighborhoods, according to Devero Bogart, Maricopa County Assessor's Office spokesperson. Each property is compared with the recent market values of other properties with similar characteristics in the same community.

That means houses in north Scottsdale generally aren't compared with homes in Rio Verde Foothills, even though those homeowners are a short distance away. Factors specific to each area are used in the formulas that help the assessor's office determine a house's value.

For instance, houses in Rio Verde Foothills often are along unpaved roads because property taxes to the county don't pay for paved roads in the neighborhood. Property owners in north Scottsdale generally will encounter smooth roads all the way home.

So, comparing the houses is a bit like comparing "apples to oranges," Bogart said. And that means that a house valued at $600,000 in north Scottsdale, where property values trend higher than the Foothills', might look a little different in terms of space and amenities than a home in the unincorporated community.

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What might each home pay for water?

The cost of building and maintaining Scottsdale's water infrastructure is primarily funded through water rates charged to city residents.

An average Arizonan uses 146 gallons of water per day, according to the Arizona Department of Water Resources. For a family of four, that's 584 gallons or about 17,520 gallons per 30-day month.

If the family lives in Rio Verde Foothills, their water bill would look like this based on pre-January rates:

  • $6.75 per 1,000 gallons, or about $118 for an average amount of water for a family of four.
  • $6.10 stormwater fee.
  • $0.11 state of Arizona water quality assurance fee.

That leaves the family with a total bill of about $124, not including sales tax or fees to transport the water that produces revenue for the private haulers, which Scottsdale spokesperson Kelly Corsette said "generally dwarfs the water cost."

Lisa Nelson holds a sign in protest of her and other residents of the Rio Verde Foothills loosing their access to water after Scottsdale shutoff the standpipe at the start of the year, during a Scottsdale city council meeting at the Scottsdale Civic Center on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023.

Scottsdale also charges water haulers a monthly base rate of $116.40, but it's unclear how that cost gets distributed among customers.

In Scottsdale, that same family could pay:

  • $26.65 base rate, assuming a one-inch meter, which is standard in most residences, according to city officials.
  • $51.61 for an average amount of water for a family of four, based on a sliding rate.
  • $6.10 stormwater fee.
  • $0.11 state of Arizona water quality assurance fee.

That leaves the family with a roughly $84 bill, not including sales tax.

While Scottsdale residents may see a slightly lower monthly water bill than those living in Rio Verde Foothills, each newly built house in the city also comes with an upfront development charge. Currently, that fee is $3,908 for a single-family house, officials said.

That means that Scottsdale residents building a new home pay thousands upfront to buy into the city's water system, or likely see that cost passed to them if their home is purchased from a developer.

Under the rates previously charged to Rio Verde Foothills residents before the January cutoff, it would take years for a four-member family in the community to match that initial contribution, assuming average water use.

The rates proposed in Scottsdale's temporary agreement draft would slash that timeframe to just over a year.

City residents pay more in taxes, too

Taxes don't factor into operating and capital budgets for Scottsdale water. But they fund other amenities — such as paved roads and a police department — that Rio Verde Foothills residents lack.

The tax bills that The Republic analyzed show that both homeowners paid county property taxes, which worked out to around $700 for each. The houses were within the same school district and special taxing districts, and besides minor differences in valuation that accounted for slight variations, the tax bills were virtually identical.

But the owners of the home located within Scottsdale's borders paid an additional $550 in overall taxes for the year.

Currently, about half of that money goes toward city services. The remaining amount goes toward voter-approved bond initiatives, such as the ongoing overhaul of the city's Civic Center Plaza and the new $40 million sports complex being built on Bell Road.

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Arizona Republic reporter Catherine Reagor contributed to this article.

Sasha Hupka covers Maricopa County, Pinal County and regional issues for The Arizona Republic. Do you live on unincorporated land and have a story to tell? Reach her at Follow her on Twitter: @SashaHupka.