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Charter change, sales tax on November ballot

A half-cent bump in the city sales tax and a slate of City Charter changes will be on November's ballot, the City Council decided Wednesday.

The council voted 5-2 to ask voters to approve a 5-year increase in Tucson's sales tax. Councilmen Paul Cunningham and Steve Kozachik voted against asking voters to raise to tax a half-cent.

The "Core Service Tax" would raise $40 million a year for police and fire, street maintenance and parks and recreation programs.

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.

Tucson's projected budget deficit for 2011-12 is $40 million, city Budget Director Marie Nemerguth said. The city may have to sell off property and do sale/lease-back arrangements on government buildings if the tax measure is not passed.

The council did not vote on a measure that would have referred a "revenue source rule" to the ballot. The rule would require initiatives and referendums that mandate spending would have to identify a source of new revenue.

That proposal was inspired by last year's failed Proposition 200, which would have mandated spending on public safety. Opponents of the measure argued that it would reduce other city services and did not identify an adequate funding source.

Charter changes

The council voted 4-3 to refer a package of changes to the City Charter to voters. Council members Richard Fimbres, Regina Romero and Karin Uhlich voted against the package.

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"I'm not quite there yet," Romero said of the changes. Romero and Uhlich offered a series of motions to modify the charter changes, asking for more input on hiring city department heads from the council, and splitting the package into four ballot proposals. Those motions all fell on 4-3 votes that mirrored the final decision.

The charter changes would increase the power of the mayor, eliminate civil service protections for department heads and deputies, shift council elections so that all members would be elected in the same year, and give the mayor and council members a pay boost.

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

The basic charter change 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.

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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.

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, said at a council meeting two weeks ago.

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 will still be held in odd-numbered years, but the staggered terms of council members will be eliminated.

The 2011 elections in Wards 1,2 and 4 will be for two-year terms. Beginning in 2013, all council members will be elected to four-year terms in the same elections.

The move will save money, supporters say, by eliminating an election cycle every two years.

Opponents of changing the election cycle point out that a clean sweep of council members could eliminate the city's "institutional memory" all at once.

The process

The council faced a practical deadline Wednesday on whether to refer the charter amendments to voters, because if must notify Pima County, which administers elections, if it wants to place items on the ballot.

The changes, pushed by the Tucson Charter Change Coalition, a group backed by the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, are touted as increasing the efficiency of city government.

"This is a strong package of reforms that will strengthen city government even as it saves money for the taxpayers," said SALC board chair Bruce Beach in a release after the vote.

Opponents of some of the changes say they would increase the power of the unelected city manager, and decrease transparency and democracy in city politics.

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"The key to selling charter change is as a package of good government changes," said SALC head Ron Shoopman at a council meeting two weeks ago.

The amendments would be "a step in the right direction, but is it what I would have come up with? No," said Democrat head Rogers at the same meeting. "It's a delicate balance if this goes to the voters. It could go over like a lead balloon."

Rogers has favored moving to a "strong mayor" system, with more power vested in elected officials. He has worked to build consensus between Democrats and charter change backers, with those pushing the amendments backing away from an absolutist stance on the power of the city manager to hire and fire.

The SALC backed a "strong mayor" system in a 2001 push to modify the charter. That initiative would have also added two council seats and moved Tucson to nonpartisan elections.

Those changes were shot down by the council in June 2001.

So why the new attempt to change city government?

SALC spokesman Jim Kiser has pointed to the council's spending time on issues of everyday government as a reason to rework the system. "The council's looking at minutiae like delinquent accounts" he said. "There's too much turnover in city managers. We need to clear up the lines of authority."

This year, SALC began floating a new package of charter and policy changes. The group listed 8 charter changes, 6 policy changes and 3 "community practice" changes in a Feb. 1 planning document.

A SALC document from Feb. 11 lists 7 charter changes, 6 policy changes and 3 "community practice" changes.

Through a series of meetings and discussions with potential supporters of changing city government, that list has been narrowed to the four recommendations the Charter Change Coalition is pushing.

In an April interview, Kiser said that the group still backed the proposed policy changes, but would put them on the back burner to focus on getting changes to the charter on the ballot.

Former councilman Steve Leal offered support for the amendments two weeks ago, but with caveats.

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"Eliminating staggered elections has enormous merit," he said. "We could have a stable legislative environment for one year; right now we have election cycles every two years."

"If all were elected at the same time, you'd have a two-year window. You could all get skittish (about election-year issues) at the same time," Leal said.

"Without real checks and balances in this document (the charter), Tucson's council could lose its power. I've worked with eight city managers," Leal said. "With at least five of them, the city manager used money for projects" to keep council members happy.

"The attorneys and lobbyists always find a way to have a relationship with staff." Leal said. "The average citizen can't."

Rogers called the move to change the charter "a very real and significant step forward for our city and that's why it deserves your serious consideration," in an open letter.

Several opponents of charter change were quite vocal at the public hearing held during the council meeting two weeks ago.

Blogger Luke Knipe of PocoBravo.com has long been a critic of the SALC. "These proposals... did not emerge from a group that serves the voters' interests," he said.

Former state Rep. Tom Prezelski, a Democrat, compared the SALC to a group of "colonial overlords," expressing concern about the amount of citizen input on the proposed changes.

Prezelski argued against changing the structure of city government, saying that it doesn't matter if 90 percent of cities in Arizona are structured as the charter changes propose.

"If everyone were jumping off a cliff, we wouldn't do it too," he said. "Most cities in Arizona are bedroom communities in Maricopa County. We have a different set of problems. We know we're better than those cities. That's not really a place where people are engaged" in their communities, Prezelski said.

Tucson's charter dates to 1929, and while it has been amended, the changes proposed by the Charter Change Coalition would be more far-reaching than any previous change.

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