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What the Devil won't tell you

Bonding for road repair is a horrible idea, but likely necessary

Pima County faces no option other than taking on debt to pay for much-needed maintenance

I got a bit radical in my zealotry for competitive elections and how creating safe Pima County supervisors' districts prevents unanimity. For the want of a 5-0 vote, the Pima County Board of Supervisors now faces a lousy set of options to fix the region's roads.

So now County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry is left trying to talk the board into bonding for road repair.

And he's probably got the votes among the supervisors to take a bond issue to voters. That's assuming the Democrats are all on board; plus he's got one Republican leaning his way.

Supervisor Steve Christy told the Green Valley News the bond option “looks more and more attractive.”

Uh, no Steve. It's not.

Bonding for ordinary maintenance violates the rules of Public Finance 101. What's that they say about dogs having their day? This mangy mutt's time may have come because the county has no option but to charge it on their credit card. Eventually, though, the Regional Transportation Authority may prove to be the sugar daddy to bail the county out on the back end. Perhaps. It's too soon to tell.

And it's the back end that's crucial here.

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My first briefing on government budgets was delivered by a Flagstaff city manager who told me that city balance sheets are broken out into maintenance and operations, capital expenses, general fund, enterprise funds and then way over here.... bonds. You never bond for M & O.

Now the county would technically bond for "capital maintenance" but that's a distinction with barely a difference. They are having to take on debt, plus interest, for what should be an ongoing annual expense. It's an expensive temporary fix that doesn't solve the bigger problem. How do they pay for this every year without a bond?

Bonding for maintenance is a really bad idea and Huckelberry knows it. His memo outlining the proposal sounds like he's justifying the amputation of Richard Elias' femur. He really doesn't want to do this but doesn't explain why.

The reason is really obvious and simple.

Frigidaire vs. Safeway

This is really easy to understand. Your credit cards aren't evil if you use them on one-time, big-ticket, durable purchases that would wreck your cash flow if you tried to pay for 'em out of pocket. You need a new refrigerator; you can put it on Visa and pay it off over time.

Buying food on your credit card is another story. It had better not be something you do regularly or you are going to run into problems.

Eventually, you will max out on your credit limit and then you still need the food in that fridge but have no budget for it. Before throwing groceries and other daily expenses on credit, the smart money looks for every possible way to cut spending or find more cash.

You are also paying for the privilege to borrow so that $3.50 loaf of bread may cost $6.50 after you pay off all the interest.

Road repair is a regular, ongoing county expense. Borrowing money to pay for it only sets us up for potential problems later. Once the county is dependent on debt to cover these expenses, it can only afford them if it takes on more debt.

Pima County is in this big-ass pothole for two reasons. It hasn't been able to afford necessary road repairs for 10-plus years and erosion never sleeps.

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Bonding is perfectly fine to, say, widen Grant Road. That's cool. Once the Regional Transportation Authority pays to blow the arterial out by another two lanes, those lanes are there. The job is done. The construction cost stops. That's an investment.

If we pass these bonds, once the county's bonding authority to pay for these road repairs runs out, the roads will immediately begin to deteriorate. That's just how weathering works. What's more, in the time it takes the county to fix the worst roads today, the good ones will start going to crap tomorrow. So when the bond runs out, there will be more roads to fix.

Since 2015, the county estimates that about a fifth of our roads have fallen into disrepair. More than 70 percent of roads in the county need some sort of work. 

Without a major fix to the budget, the county won't be able afford them for the same reason the county can't afford to do it today. There's no money in the budget to do it.

Then what? Float another bond.

Penny wise, fortune foolish

If there exists a classic example of “belt-tightening stupidity,” it's road maintenance.

It goes a little something like this: “Says here, you guys in Transportation want $X million for preventative maintenance on Y hundred lane miles of roads next fiscal year. Of course you do. Well, we all need to do more with less so just budget for the worst roads now and we'll get to the rest later.”

Look, you seal pavement until you die. You seal if it means letting the worst of the worst gang members out of jail. You preserve pavement if it means bringing back latch-key kids after slashing social programs. The mantra any supervisor or council member should obsess over during budget meetings should be, “Gotta save the pavement.”

Basic pavement preservation costs money. Without it, the roads need to be rehabilitated and that costs a lot more money. Way more. Neglect road repairs and they have to be completely rebuilt and that can cost tens of millions per mile.

Here's how the pros explained it in 2015 with a single sentence describing the road portion of the bond package that voters doomed three three years ago: "Appropriate treatment types will be selected based on existing roadway conditions such that, once treated, the road will not fall into a failed condition in the 10 years following treatment and only minimal treatments are required in the following 10 years."

That's Bureaucratese for "in the name of all that is holy, give us money now to save you a Saudi fortune later." It's easy. It's cheap. But for some reason, politicos find it easy to cheap out on the basics.

If the streets require rehab, then the costs are high and the sticker shock can drive a government into ignoring it further. Eventually, the whole damn thing needs to be rebuilt.

I suppose the good news is that you can bond for reconstruction. Taxpayers get squeezed and they might then feel less willing to pay for schools or cops.

Road expenses are entirely predictable and early rebuilds are entirely preventable. Spend the pennies now and save the pounds of flesh later.

So vote no, right?

If that's conclusion you are reaching, Dear Reader, go back and read again.

We all gotta go somewhere

Huckelberry is right. The county has no choice and has no options. We're out of 'em.

Highway User Revenue Funds that should be in the county's kitty to pay for roads are horded up in Phoenix. The sales tax failed to pass the Supes, with the two Republicans voting "nay." The prospects of the Legislature lifting the legal requirement for a unanimous vote to institute a county sales tax went nowhere, and neither is Ally Miller. Cutting funding? The county isn't going to find $430 million over 10 years to pay for Huckelbery's bargain-basement fix-it plan (let alone $860 million over 20 years for the pricey option).

Pima County is without options because erosion never sleeps. Those roads that need sealing now will need major repairs later. The ones that need major repairs now will need to be rebuilt later. Every rain drop, every BTU of solar energy beating down on the road, every tire that thrums over the asphalt keeps driving up the price of having a transportation infrastructure at all.

I'm going to step outside the box again and propose a weird idea that practically makes sense. During the next decade, the RTA transportation funding package will expire and will either die or must go back to voters for an extension.

RTA Director Farhad Moghimi said a citizen's committee will make a recommendation about continuing the regional partnership and "everything is on the table." He just commits to nothing, which is exactly what he should say right now.

My guess is that it will go back for an extension. C'mon. This was a 20-year-plan. Who thinks we won't need another 20-year-plan after that? Given the city's need for a local contractor to run its Sun Tran service, I'm guessing the RTA will undergo a major re-think.

The city and county should at the very least discuss turning road repair and preservation over to the RTA. Handing the job over to a regional board that can only spend money on transportation means road money can't be cannibalized for other worthwhile needs. The work will get done and the community will save money ... well ... down the road.

Just pay the damn bill and get it done.

The RTA isn't governed by a constant need to trim and hold the line. It doesn't inspire anger or incite anti-conspiratorial rage like the city and county do. It doesn't have competing budget pressures. It just has one job.

Choosing not to pay the road bill, doesn't mean the bill goes away. Just the opposite: it'll just get even pricier.

Government these days seems to be forced to justify expenses by proving some sort of tangible financial benefit.

Amber Smith, who runs the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber, has referenced in Inside Tucson Business a 2010 study concluding Tucson's lousy roads cost drivers here $288 more per year to keep up their cars than what Phoenix drivers pay. The county transportation staff argued “Quality roads bring immediate and sometimes dramatic benefits to all Pima County residents through improved access to work, school, businesses and recreational areas; and improving comfort, speed and safety; as well as, lower vehicle operating costs.”

It's simpler than that. Everyone who doesn't live, work or shop alongside a stretch of pavement is free to vote no. The rest of us don't have much choice.

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Blake Morlock is a journalist who has 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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