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What the Devil won't tell you

Rothschild lacks urgency in State of the City address

Tucson's muddling economy does little to inspire a mayor on cruise control

Tucson's economy is what you get when political leaders find no downside to cruise control and no upside in urgency.

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild's "State of the City address" before the Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce was delivered as if he were the big guy in Anytown, USA, cashing in on the national recovery. He's not. Tucson is muddling along.

The State of the City speech is a pointless tradition or maybe it seems so because of its name. State of the Union, I guess makes sense, though it wasn't always an extravaganza. State of the States are governors road-testing their presidential wannabe chops. Once we get down to the state of the city, we're really stretching the linguistic genealogy to Article II Sect. 3 of the U.S. Constitution. Call it the "Mayor's Annual Address."

On the other hand, if a mayor is going to discuss the condition of his fair city, he should discuss its actual condition. Rothschild didn't do that, instead opting for a "huzzah," cheering on his own stewardship. Leadership would have meant owning our city's sorry economic reality.

The U.S. got great news on the jobs front last month, with the American economy adding 313,000 jobs — the best number since President Obama's final July in office. Arizona, on the other hand, got worse news.

State economists had projected 1.5 percent job growth for 2017 but the numbers got revised substantially downward to 0.8 percent. Unemployment in the state got revised from 4.1 percent projected to 4.7 percent actual.

It's easy to understand why. The jobless hear all the good news nationally and try to jump back from oblivion into the market for gainful employment here only to find the state's creaking economy over-run by job seekers without enough work to accommodate them. So 2,200 takers got off their lazy asses to look for work in January on news of strong national news only to find makers have wiped out 14,590 jobs in the state. It's probably a holiday blip, but a holiday blip on a lousy reality.

In all, Arizona's economy created 21,600 jobs last year. Pot-smoking Colorado, with a Stalinist governor (a Democrat), added 82,013 jobs during the same period. Munchies must be a pro-growth thing. Colorado has a smaller population than Arizona. Hmmm. Washington — with legal weed, lefties in charge and a nasty B and O tax scheme on businesses — created 89,194 jobs.

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Tucson's economy is even straggling compared to Arizona's huffing and puffing, adding just 7,700 jobs last year. Here's a reality check. The Tucson region added more jobs in 2008 than it did in 2017. And 2008 was the first year of the Great Recession. Spokane, with a job market a little more than half the size, added more jobs than Tucson during the first 11 months of 2017. Fort Collins with a work force less than half the size of Tucson's created more jobs than we did last year.

Yes, folks, there's a recovery going on out there but it sure as hell ain't ours.

Tucson is just a boiled frog under the watchful eye of French chefs.

The drop in

In fact, Rothschild had to drop in a section acknowledging the loss of jobs when luxury jet outfitter Rockwell Collins announced this week it was shutting down its plant in Tucson and taking 400 jobs with it.

"Yesterday, we had some bad news about Rockwell Collins. We're reaching out to the company, which is being acquired by United Technologies. But if their decision to leave is final, that's all the more reason why we need to double down on economic development. It's a volatile world, and we can't sit back and wait for employers to find us"

Rothschild mentioned just part of the bad news. The company employed 900 just a few years ago and then pared back to 400. United Technologies bought Rockwell Collins (which itself had bought B/E Aerospace and the Tucson operation just months before) and decided to bail. Upon the news of slashing how 400 Tucsonans provide for their families, United Technologies stock increased from $131 to $134 in a single day. A 2.8 percent daily bump isn't much for someone with 10 shares. Someone who owns 10,000 shares suddenly can afford a year at a pricey college for Junior or Trey. Kids of those 400 workers can just go into debt for school.

So again, I bang the drum. Tucson can't just wait for employers to find us but that doesn't mean we devote so much time and effort to stalking site selectors either. Each month this year, Tucson leaders could announce a major employer bringing 500 jobs to town and at the end of the year, the city would gross just 6,000 jobs. For Tucson to add 15,000 jobs per year would mean that 9,000 of them would come from the businesses already here. Without existing businesses doing the heavy lifting, Tucson's economy will struggle.

Cruisin' past the urgency

I really wasn't looking for answers out of Rothschild but maybe, perhaps, possibly some recognition that things aren't going well. Who knows? Maybe the mayor could have given the audience of local players a kick in the ass. We're probably not going to fire Sun Corridor Inc. for its ever-evolving expansion and goal-post moving. But maybe "write them up," with a wagging finger.

In this, Rothschild is a rational actor because when it comes to government there's no upside to urgency when the status quo isn't lethal.

What's in it for Rothschild to set the Chamber crowd on fire with urgent calls to action? Say he went all Williams Jennings Bryan on their asses and declared "You will not push down on Tucson's brow this crown of call centers! You will not crucify the Old Pueblo on a cross of convenience stores!"

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Hell yeah! Right? Wrong. People would expect him to change things. He'd have to convene task forces that would actually complete a task with force. He'd have to get the bureaucracy to dance on a dime. He'd be expected to whip this town into shape and even that wouldn't be enough. The people would expect results. And if he gave his variety of the "Cross of Gold Speech," convened task forces full of piss and vinegar, got the bureaucracy to do the swing dance and things didn't change, then Rothschild would only have succeeded in identifying a crisis he couldn't solve. Where's the fun in that?

Meanwhile, the status quo works more or less fine for him and local government. Maybe he hangs up his spurs after two terms, so he's a lame duck. What does it matter? If he chooses to run again, the local GOP has proven incapable of mounting a challenge because they prefer bitching wrongly that a Republican can't win in Tucson (see Bob Walkup, Mark Napier, Beth Ford, Steve Kozachick). So Rothschild has job security.

Mike Ortega looks like a fine city manager but managers manage. City staff have job security, so the economy is just that thing that's going on in the background. It's a sad-sack tale they hear every day but they got other things to worry about.

They don't lead. That's the job of the mayor and the Council.

None of the City Council members have to fear for their gigs, so why step on the gas? Cruise control works just fine for all involved. By cruise control, I don't mean they are sitting on their hands. Rothschild has a plan of action. All involved have plans of action.

Base, how low can you go?

Of course it does affect the city government and the taxpayers in a way that affects business.

A lousy economy means lousy sales tax revenues and the city has been in a sales tax drought for 10 years. The city depends on sales taxes to pay for programs that don't produce their own revenue — like parks and public safety. So they ask for a little higher tax rate to fix roads and buy gear for cops and firefighters.

Higher tax rates haven't hindered Colorado, Washington or Minnesota. Those states provide more services with those higher costs. If the tax rate is high because the tax base sucks because the economy barely murmurs, business pays more for less and cops leave the big city to work in suburbs because the pay is better.

Tucson needs to get over the idea that the absence of snow shovels comes means we have to settle for less. The sun shines on Austin, Atlanta and San Diego. They've made money while avoiding snow, too.

For years, free traders believed the net benefit of global commerce outweighed the costs with a firm faith that those ill-effected would simply adapt. Rural industrial communities got wiped out but they were just collateral damage in a war for bigger victories.

A leader must see a problem and acknowledge it to address it.

Cruise control may not have a downside today ... but just wait. Just wait.

Blake Morlock is a journalist who spent 17 years covering government in Arizona and also worked in Democratic political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

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1 comment on this story

Mar 11, 2018, 5:40 pm
-3 +3

Pray tell us:  what have the last three mayors done for Tucson???  I think Jonathan is doing a GREAT job, especially considering our impoverished educational system that has been robbed by the Governor of funds.  You want companies to come here?  There HAS to be a strong education base in order to attract companies.  And he can hardly be blamed for the loss of the Rockwell Collins jobs - their products have become obsolete or replaced by a cheaper products.  And recovering from twelve years of Walkup is a long process, akin to recovering from a recession.

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild delivered his 'State of the City' speech Friday at the Tucson Convention Center.