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Opinion

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What the Devil won't tell you

Time out: I don't care who started the latest city/county feud; I'm stopping it

Tucson and Pima County each needs to go sit in the corner for a few minutes

OK, I don’t care who started it. I’m stopping it.

Chuck: Play nice.

Paul and Steve: Just stop tugging at Chuck’s glasses or no one gets their juice box.

My life is suddenly all about telling a toddler granddaughter, “Alannah, no!,” “Alannah, don’t dart into the parking lot,” “Alannah, please don’t eat things that will kill you,” and “Alannah, where the hell did you find that Swiss army knife? I haven’t seen it in four years.” And there’s a presumptive “Audry” on the way. So I’m going to practice this sibling separation thing right now.

The last thing we need in the Greater Naked Pueblo is a return to the days of bitching, sniping and kvetching between the city and the county governments. They both serve basically the same community and should be working together to do it better.

And yet, the city of Tucson and Pima County are getting into it again, this time over road repair money. The county has announced a "pay as you go" plan to fix up a bunch of roads using general fund (and therefore city taxpayers’) money. They are limiting the program — deftly acronymized as PAYGO; see what they did there? — to county roads out beyond the Tucson city limits.

So Councilmen Steve Kozachik and Paul Cunningham, dutifully representing their wards and their city, fired off a terse letter to Pima County basically saying “cease and desist.” It's the sort of thing that can start a range war with a snark-prone county administrator like Chuck Huckelberry.

The letter basically has a point when it says, “PAYGO is a policy the Board of Supervisors were lured into adopting by the County Administration simply because every other option they’ve tried has been rejected by the voters.”

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Once I was doing an economic development story and wrote the line “ the city wants to lure businesses here.” My editor read that and said “What? Lured? Like with candy into a van?” Good point.

“Lured” is a bit strong of a term. But the letter does accurately capture the notion of desperation after county voters keep rejecting road bond plans to pay for basic maintenance. A 2018 road bond plan was rejected and a series of 2015 bonds were spiked spectacularly.

Be clear that we’re using the terms “bonds” and “PAYGO” here to refer to spending programs by referring to how the county would foot the bill. Bonds are basically long-term, very low-interest loans, while the PAYGO method has us writing a check out of the general fund balance every time we fill a pothole.

Cunningham and Kozachik aren’t complaining about the failure to finance. They are talking about using property taxes paid by city residents to fund work that's not done inside the city limits.

Something other than you

The substance of the letter involves an age-old political theory: "Why do I have to pay for (insert target of consternation here) that isn't me."

For the 3,582,957th time, it's called "civilization." It requires some social capital, people.

Of course the county is prioritizing road work not in municipalities. If they don't fix those roads, no one else will. Meanwhile, Tucson voters approved a half-cent sales tax to help take care of needs within the city limits.

Should the county close Tucson Mountain Park – or at least the city’s share of it? That’s in the county. That is paid for out of general funds that are propped up by the county tax rate.

Also, have either of these governments met the Tucson Unified School District? Plenty of retired snowbirds from Minneapolis pay for schools that their kids or grandkids will never use.

While we’re at it, how many Pima County residents out in Tortolita pay for the Dan Eckstrom Library, which the city begged the county to take over during a particularly rough spot in the Tucson’s budget woes?

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If the county doesn't pay for road repair in incorporated territory, who will? They're getting no love on bond project but erosion doesn't care. Also, there is a line on the city residents' property tax bills that reads "city of Tucson," indicating which money is only to be spent in the city. Then there's one that reads "Pima County," which is earmarked for funds to be spent all throughout the county.

City residents are far more likely to use a county road being fixed by their sales tax dollars than they are to visit Denali National Park but they pay for that too.

How many of us use Tomahawk cruise missiles? Yet Tomahawks built at Raytheon Missile Systems pay for an awful lot of lane-miles of roads here in Tucson.

In the United States, we have a distributed system of taxation and appropriation. We have city government, county government, state government and federal government. Back east they got another layer called “towns,” which are smaller subcounties surrounding villages. Each jurisdiction has its own set of responsibilities and its own taxing authority.

Not every dime spent goes back to where the tax originated. Sometimes its not supposed to but city residents do use those roads because Tucsonans aren't forever assigned to live in a Speedway-based Habitrail.

Not so fast, Pima County

Now Chuck, it takes two to tango.

You’ve been around forever. We’re going to start measuring your tenure in office in geologic terms. I think it dates back to the early Pleistocene.

You don’t always have patience or sometimes awareness of how your eyerolls, at the existence of other governing jurisdictions and how they politically intersect with county operations, can bug people.

You get away with it because in every local government, there’s a red button with a plaque over it that reads: “In case of emergency, break glass and get Chuck.” It’s how we got the Regional Transit Authority and numerous business relocations.

But you can throw your weight around in ways that pisses people off unnecessarily and you don’t suffer foolish arguments gladly.

And the county has a history of doing it for sport. There was a time when the city didn’t use county road bond money to fix up 22nd Street and the Board of Supervisors grabbed it and deployed it into South Tucson.

The county admits to having a myopic view of their needs and goes about planning policy saying "this is what we need, so this is what we'll do. Let everyone else do that." 

That can lead to uneven policy across the region and rising tempers from other local governments doing their thing.

There was a time when the city manager would send over a memo to you, Chuck, and you would toss it in the trash without reading it. We don't need to get back to that.

We, the voters, still live here and Tucson is bigger than any single jurisdiction. It does us no good to return to the days of feuds between the city and county.

Kozachik and Cunningham feel like they need to rep their wards and the city as a whole. Their advocacy — if substantively off base — is wholly understandable.

Smoothing things over would help here to nip this squawking before it erupts into a full on Western range war. Play nice.

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And maybe, maybe, understand that taking a bunch of city money and spending it exclusively in the county – no matter how warranted – might bug the city.

Kozachik told me "no one bothered to suggest" that the county was going to make such a recommendation. 

Being right on substance is only part of being correct. How you go about being right goes a long way to determining whether y’all can play together.

Seriously, the million of us living in the Tucson area don't need a return to the days when the two biggest local governments in town were barely communicating.

Tucson is in a weird place. We've got our own form of spacetime that is foreign to a lot of people.

None of the local governments seems to be running radically off the rails. Even TUSD seems to be behaving itself. Chaos and dysfunction usually infect at least one government at a time but right now, all seems to be quiet on our little part of the western front. 

Now is a good time to start building on that, especially with the Regional Transit Authority’s re-authorization on the horizon. To get that done, these local jurisdictions must smartly work together.

I’m iffy on the prospects of “regional government” but governments within the region should try to dovetail policies that effect those of us who call ourselves “Tucsonans” when we travel back to Dubuque. They should also avoid pissing one another off unnecessarily.

Sometimes they’ll be at cross-purposes and that will require some pro-forma grousing. Let’s not pretend that every dime spent by a taxpayer has to have some sort of obvious benefit to them directly in their front yard. And let’s remember to play nice.

I don’t want to put you in your play pen until you scream yourself to sleep. But I will.

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Pima County

A brewing battle over where the county fixes roads is threatening to awaken unneeded past inter-government furies.