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Sales tax bump, charter changes on Council slate

The Tucson City Council is set to vote Wednesday on whether to place a half-cent bump in the sales tax on the ballot.

Also on the agenda are possible changes to the city charter, which would likewise have to be placed on November's ballot for voter approval.

The increase in the sales tax would give Tucsonans a total sales tax of 9.6 percent, including the 6.6 percent that the state charges. The Regional Transportation Authority levies a half-cent sales tax throughout Pima County, while the city's current tax is 2 percent.

The Core Service Tax, as the city is billing it, would be dedicated to police and fire, street maintenance and parks and recreation programs. The tax would last five years.

The tax would raise about $40 million a year, city officials say.

Charter changes

The council will also consider placing changes to the city's charter on the ballot.

The charter is essentially the city's constitution, defining how city government runs.

The council may consider delaying a vote on one of the measures until a possible special election in May.

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Backers of both the sales-tax hike and the charter changes see pitfalls in pairing the increase with a boost in councilmember salaries.

A special election would cost about $750,000.

While the details of the changes have been in flux as boosters have tried to build consensus for altering what is essentially Tucson's constitution, the basic proposals are:

Change the city manager's relationship to the council

The charter and Tucson's civil service rules would be changed to eliminate civil service protection for department heads and their deputies.

The city manager would have the authority to hire and fire most department heads, with the consent of the mayor and council. The city attorney and city clerk would be under the authority of the council.

Some department heads would be directly under the authority of the city manager.

Supporters of the change say the city manager should be a municipal CEO, with the capacity to hire and fire staffers and carry out the policies as directed by the city council.

Opponents say maintaining a strong mayor and council leads to direct accountability to the voters, and that giving the manager more power could provide special interests the ability to lobby behind the scenes.

Boost mayor and council salaries

The mayor and council would be paid based on the salaries of the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisors' salaries are set by the legislature every four years.

The mayor's salary would be raised to $76,600, equal to a supervisor's pay. Council members would be paid $61,280, 80 percent of the mayor's salary.

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Council members are currently paid $24,000 a year. The mayor is paid $42,000.

Supporters of a pay raise say that both mayor and council members are underpaid, and that a raise would widen the field of candidates.

"It's impossible to expect people to work for $24,000 a year and consider it a full-time job," said Bill Roe, an environmentalist and member of Southern Arizona Leadership Council, at the last council meeting.

While not many disagree with raising council pay in a revenue-neutral way (by cutting council staff, for instance), some charter change opponents say that the pay raise is a carrot to induce the council to give up some of its powers.

"A salary increase is a difficult sale," said Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Rogers, but "as part of a package" it may meet voter approval.

Establish mayoral parity

The mayor would have the same voting rights as council members, be deemed a member of the council, and count toward a quorum. Currently, there are issues on which the mayor may not vote, and only council members count toward a quorum.

Supporters of the change say that Tucson's restrictions on the mayor are a legacy of its original charter in 1929.

Even most opponents of changing the charter concede that there's no reason to limit the mayor's ability to vote. Some express worry about the details of making the mayor a full member of the council, such as giving the mayor the power to set the agenda.

Change the election cycle

City elections, now held in odd-numbered years, would be moved to even-numbered years. It's been an open question whether to continue with staggered terms, with only some members running in each election, or move to a system with all members running in each election.

Holding elections at the same time as county and state elections could lead to lower costs and higher turnout, charter change supporters say.

Opponents of changing the election cycle point out that a move to even years could lead to less attention being paid to city elections, with higher profile national and state races attracting all of the notice (and funding, as well). They say a clean sweep of council members could eliminate the city's "institutional memory" all at once.

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Where & when

Tucson City Council meeting

  • Mayor & Council Chambers, City Hall, 255 W. Alameda St.
  • Study session: 9:00 a.m. Wednesday
  • Regular meeting: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday