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Water, trash rates set to increase by more than 20% in Tucson

The Tucson agenda

Water, trash rates set to increase by more than 20% in Tucson

Pima County dives into water management business, recrafts World View deal, plus more in local gov't meetings

  • It's a long, dry haul to secure Tucson's water future and rates are set to increase to foot the bill.
    Ted Wood/The Water DeskIt's a long, dry haul to secure Tucson's water future and rates are set to increase to foot the bill.

Water, trash, space and a big old "I told you so" headline this week's agendas of the Tucson City Council and Pima County Board of Supervisors.

Tucson Water wants to increase base water rates 5.5 percent per year for the next four years. Also, the Central Arizona Project surcharge is set to increase from 70 cents per hundred cubic feet to $1 per hundred cubic feet. 

Because the rates compound, that equals a 23.9 percent increase in water bills by fiscal year 2027.

Low-income customers can qualify for a discount if they earn 150 percent of the poverty rate or less.

The City Council will hold a public hearing Wednesday on the proposed rate increase ahead of a future vote.

Tucson Water staff says the rate increases are necessary to pay for big-ticket capital investments and encourage conservation.

Tucson Water works like a business. The revenue it collects in bills pays for the entirety of the water delivery system. It gets nothing from the city's general fund.

So if costs of service increase or there is a need for capital investment, customers foot the whole bill.

Tucson Water's report is to the Council justifying the increase is full of gorgeous bureaucratic prose like: 

"Furthermore, for revenue stability purposes, CWAC and Tucson Water continue to believe it important to maintain revenue recovery from fixed monthly service charges. The current fixed charges generate approximately 27% of TW’s water sales revenue, while approximately 80% of the utility’s costs are fixed."

OK. Which '90s word-salad lyricist went to business school?

Thankfully, the Citizens Water Advisory Council provided a compendium explaining the water department faces increased costs due to the drought and pandemic. 

The department also needs another $60 million in capital investment, which means more bonding and that means more debt.

There's one quirk in the proposal. The City Council has a policy requiring the city to collect $1.75 from revenues to cover debt for every dollar of debt to be repaid. It seems like a pretty big cushion but bond markets want zero doubt that debt will be repaid.

Basically, the water utility needs more flexibility in how it goes about charging customers. 

The department also operates with a five percent cushion. There are cities around Tucson operating with 50 percent cash reserves. So the plan to bring the year-end fund balance up to 10 percent seems reasonable.

The city is also looking to increase trash collection fees from $16.75 per month for a typical 95-gallon residential trash bin to $20 a month this year and $23 next year. Fees on shared alley bins would increase from $16 a month to $22.75 in fiscal year 2024. A 10 percent across-the-board increase in commercial collection and a $3 per-ton increase in landfill fees have also been recommended.

The city's Environmental and General Services Department is not a spend-what-it-raises department and gets a $60.8 million subsidy from the general fund.

Even with the increase in water and trash rates, Tucsonans will be paying less than residents of most Arizona cities and towns because of the subsidy for garbage collection — as well as less than what people pay in unincorporated Pima County.

The city hired a consulting firm in 2020 to run revenue models for its municipal solid waste system. The firm determined equipment replacement costs would outstrip revenues by $13.5 million in 2024.

Again, all that's scheduled this week is a public hearing for Tucsonans to voice their opinions about the increases. But the fees are tentatively scheduled to take effect Jan. 30.

The City Council will also vote on a new agreement with Tucson firefighters.

The labor agreement would include a 5% pay increase for firefighters who work with hazardous materials or are part of the Technical Rescue Team.

During a study session Wednesday afternoon, the Council will get an update from lawyers on the status of a city ordinance banning discrimination against renters based on their sources of income.

The law was triggered by landlords increasingly refusing to take Section 8 vouchers. These are federal housing vouchers, which were designed in the 1980s to replace construction of huge public housing projects. 

Former Attorney General Mark Brnovich's office – in something of a parting shot to the Democratic-controlled Tucson City Council – ruled the city ordinance is illegal because cities had to pass housing ordinances by 1995. The city says it's not an ordinance. It's an amendment. 

It gets more complicated than that, of course, and the city will have to figure out how to proceed under new Democratic AG Kris Mayes.

The study session is otherwise full of updates on issues like the Regional Transportation Authority, transition to a green fleet of city vehicles and a franchise agreement with Tucson Electric Power.

The Council is regularly having these discussions about where these policies stand in their gestation process. It's good to get progress reports. There's just no need every week to rehash the issues I've rehashed every time they have a conversation.

Water their options?

Perhaps most important over the long-term, the county may be wading into the water business.

County Administrator Jan Lesher is asking the Board of Supervisors to start studying how to best preserve the regional aquifer as a drought continues despite one rainy winter.

Lesher has established a staff Water Working Group, which came up with some ideas for the county can take a grip of water policy.

This is interesting because the county is expressly not in the water business. It doesn’t deliver water services. That the county runs the sewer system is an outlier among other boards of supervisors in Arizona.

The county also is prohibited from denying any development on the basis of water, so long as the developer has a piece of paper from the Arizona Department of Water Resources saying the project passes muster.

Lesher isn’t saying the county should set up its own water utility. Her point is that the county has some sort of regional responsibility for conserving the aquifer.

Lesher concedes in a memo to the board that the county has limited power in the water world. However, it has some. The example she uses is that the county has a seat on the Central Arizona Water Conservation District.

That’s less a power than an opportunity to influence.

Her ideas are more about leveraging limited powers granted the county, like spearheading water improvement financing. “You want more money for water? Well, we got terms and conditions.”

Very few government leaders believe water conservation unimportant. However, all governments jealously guard their authority. Pima County may end up stepping on some toes here.

I’m sure this is a coincidence that the county started down this road in March 2022, a couple months after the county filed a suit against the city of Tucson over higher water rates charged to county customers.

We’re going to watch another county administrator get creative, it looks like. This could take a Double Huckelberry twist, with a Half-Eckstrom finish.

View from the top of the world

Speaking of creative county administrators, Lesher and county staff are asking the supervisors to OK a new lease agreement with World View, the space balloon company that's caused the county seven years' worth of consternation.

The new deal is meant to bring the county into compliance with an Arizona Appeals Court ruling that called the deal a violation of the state's constitutional provision against government gifts to private business.

The lease agreement Lesher is recommending uses market rates for rent and eventual purchase agreement, satisfying the appeals court judges.

The new deal includes "revised" salary and employment numbers that must be met as part of an economic development deal that had the county build the balloon spaceport and lease the property to Worldview. The original 2016 agreement had been for at least 200 high-paying jobs by now (and had rosily forecast hiring 448 employees by 2020) in return for the county's rent-to-own agreement with World View.

In 2021, the county and the company began to renegotiate a deal to provide more realistic returns after the hiring fell well short of even the lower requirements, as an exclusive Tucson Sentinel investigation showed.

During the pandemic, the company just plain stopped paying rent on the property, despite being told "no" when they asked for permission to do so.

Now, World View is set to pay rent (starting at $86,000 per month, with 2.5% annual increases through a fifth year) with a $14 million option to purchase within two years. The original lease provided the company with a $10 option to buy the building after completion of a 20-year lease that would've cost nearly $24 million.

The new deal, if approved by the supervisors Tuesday, would require World View to have 90 full-time local employees, earning an average of $80,000 annually, in 2023. That number would rise to 125 after the first year of the new contract.

The original deal was meant to turn Tucson into a space balloon launch center, with knock-on affects in the local tourism industry. Now, the company plans to run its "space tourism" (how close the balloons come to space, is debatable) out of Tucson but not launch those flights here. For instance, the idea is to launch balloons out of Queensland, Australia so travelers can gaze on the Great Barrier Reef.

Queensland? Last I checked there's no Brisbane or Gold Coast near Sahuarita or Ajo. So the new plan won't do much for local tourism.

The Sentinel's been asking hard questions about this deal since the day it was announced. I've been dubious about this contract for years and have triggered the concerns of some old friends in county government. I mean: "Space balloons that don't really go into space brought to you by the people who gave us Biosphere2. What can go wrong?"

I don't like saying "I told you so" but ... that's a horrible lie. I love saying "I told you so."

Moving furniture

Unlike being the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, being the chair of the Board of Supervisors doesn't come with a fancy ceremonial office. And remarkably fewer people bow and scrape to you. But somehow, smacking that gavel on the dais must be satisfying, because eventually every Pima supervisors seems to want it. The Supes will hash out who gets to wield it this year to start Tuesday's meeting. The smart money's on Adelita Grijalva. Just don't lay down an exacta for chair and vice chair.

Election updates

Supervisor Steve Christy is also getting his final (?) after-action report on the 2022 midterm election.

County Recorder Gabriela-Cazares Kelly has offered 25 pages of charts explaining all provisional ballots after spending eight pages detailing the conduct of the election.

And the county looks ready to appoint a replacement constable for Justice of the Peace District 1. The last time around, none of the applicants were qualified under state law.

This time, Daniel F. Rowland, a Tucson Republican, appears to satisfy all the criteria. He lives in the district. He's 18 years old. He's a registered Republican, just like the former Constable John Dorer, who resigned in November.

Constables are elected positions so the party of an appointed replacement must remain the same.

Budget updates and prayer

The Marana Town Council will hold a Tuesday study session to discuss the upcoming budget. The town staff is asking council members for their input toward the front of the process to avoid getting handed a to-do list to shoe horn into the back end.

The council will hold a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the future of the Multi-Generational Community Center. 

These are the only items on either agenda.

The Nogales City Council will get an update on its financial position at the halfway point of the fiscal year.

The council will also discuss whether to start future meetings with an invocation. Most public meetings begin with one. It's kind of strange they don't in Nogales.

Exporting to Illinois

The Pima Community College Governing Board is asking the state of Illinois to give its stamp of approval to accept the local school's teaching certificates.

The move is part of a plan to get teachers OK'd here for other states and increase enrollment. 

It's not like we live in a state with a teacher's shortage ... oh, wait. We do. On the other hand, Pima is operating without any state support and has an imperative to grow its enrollment any way it can.

Also, the board will decide whether to have in-person meetings given the rise of COVID-19 and other respiratory cases. 

Other jurisdictions either meet in person or have a hybrid model where some elected leaders are in the room and others beam in remotely. 

Get up & organize

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will meet, organize and go home. It's that time of the year.

School districts across the region will be swearing in new board members and will elect board chairs and vice chairs. This can become "a thing" for reasons I've never understood. Maybe it's a line on a resume but it's not like they can really do much with the title. At the end of the day, they are just a single board member overseeing a CEO going by the job title "superintendent."

And vice chair? I once saw a football game with a score of 41-2. Somehow the safety seemed more embarrassing than a shut out. That's how I feel about vice chairs and vice mayors. Someone's gotta do it but don't be greedy about the gig.

Aside from that, it's a lot of interesting odds, peculiar ends and a massive haul of cash for one district.

Yes, panic

The Vail Unified School District Governing Board – and all school boards around Tucson who haven't already done so – will swear in their newly elected board members. The board members, superintendent and district attorney will all be granted the powers and authorities they usually have to do district business.

Then during the board's regular meeting, it will vote on a $899,797 contract to provide fencing and panic buttons at district sites that don't have them already.

Yeah, this is what schools have to spend money on in Arizona, where the Legislature empowers mass shooters and disenfranchises transgender athletes. Are they sure they don't have that backwards?

Apologies if that seems a bit extreme but it's freaking true. Schools don't need panic bars in the UK.

In other business...

The district will vote on whether to let Empire High School students take spring break in Japan. The $4,500 cost per student will be paid by tax credit donations and student contributions.

Amphitheater Unified School District's governing board will look at a proposal to provide teachers the power to sell their leave if they have accumulated more than 12 days of it. These are sick days, bereavement time and vacation hours that go unused and sparing the district from having to hire substitute teachers.

School districts are doing everything they can, it seems, to entice teachers to stay on the job or improve benefits to attract new ones.

The board will vote on a host of capital improvements at Ironwood Ridge High School, La Cima Middle School and Holoway and Prince elementary schools.

Cash cows & elephants

The Sahuarita Unified School District's Governing Board hasn't met since well before the holidays but did they ever get a stocking stuffer.

Part of its pro forma duties is to accept gifts and grants at each meeting and this week, they are accepting some whoppers. 

Freeport McMoRan mining company has donated $275,000 to the district to pay for counselors. Green Valley-area community foundation Country Fair White Elephant has donated $149,700. A couple named Glen and Lois Mumey gave the district $25,000.

Right there, that's nearly $450,000. Throw in a couple grand from the American Legion and Sahuarita schools are on their way to a half-million.

The gifts come as part of a year-end rush for tax write offs, sure. But Catalina Foothills received $82,000 and $60,000 of it came from the district's foundation.

On the other hand, the Marana Unified School District Governing Board will vote to accept its lone gift: A 1966 Chevy Impala. Not sneezing at that at all.

Aside from some American muscle and organizing, the district will name Regina Lewandowski the 2022 English Language Learner Teacher of the Year.

Precalc and the Knights of Flowing Wells

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board will vote on whether to replace honors precalculus with Advanced Placement precalculus courses. 

This would allow honors students to get college credit in math (precalc is typically a 12th grade course) and give other students who might excel a chance to take AP courses.

The board will also vote to approve a requirement that all graduates score at least 60 percent on a citizenship test. The Legislature passed and former Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill that requires this. 

I'd like to see the Legislature take the test.

The Flowing Wells Digital Campus has no school mascot or team name. Its district governing board aims to fix that.

Introducing the FWDC Knights. In their 2023 season opener, they have been established as 5 1/2 point favorites over the Denver Broncos.

The board will also look to tap Logicalis, a South African tech company, as the district's electronics and firewall vendor. The contract is for $181,869.

Students at Sunnyside Unified School District will have access to 4,500 Chromebooks and corresponding Google education programs if the governing board approves a $1.6 million deal to buy them.

The contract is for new students, to replace lost or stolen devices and upgrade the district's existing stock.

The district has a relatively high loss rate of 16 percent but a theft rate of 5 percent. Industry standard for these kinds of deals anticipates a 10 percent attrition through theft and loss.

Additionally, Sunnyside will consider a contract with Southwest Food Excellence to provide catering services for special events.

In 2019, the Arizona Auditor General busted the district for selling its own cookies and water bottles when it had no statutory authority to do so.

When the hell did that become illegal?

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

The Tucson agenda

Public meetings around Tucson this week:

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Marana Town Council

Nogales City Council

Flowing Wells Unified School District

Tuesday, 6:05 p.m., regular meeting

Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

Vail Unified School District Governing Board

Tucson City Council

Pima Community College Governing Board

Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board

Tanque Verde Unified School District

Marana Unified School District Governing Board

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