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What the Devil won't tell you

Save this pooch: New Pima supes pick fight with status quo over early-ed funding

The Pima County Board of Supervisors is headed for a blowout later this year after voting to include all – not some, but all – of Rex Scott’s proposed $10 million early childhood education plan into the next year’s spending.

There’s some budget-geek chicanery going on here that I’ll explain in a second but first, let’s review what Supervisor Scott just pulled here.

In my last column, I pointed out how Scott circumvented the inside-turf game and the outside-pressure-group game to head along a curious third route. He played and won the I-got-the-votes-and-everyone-else-can-eat-them game to perhaps cram $10 million in early childhood education money into the budget for next year. Now the fun starts.

The supervisors voted 4-1 to demand County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recommend a $10 million early childhood education investment in the budget he proposes to the board — a recommendation to be developed over the next couple of months.

Yes, the board ordered Huckelberry to recommend something he doesn’t really want to do. Welcome to the budget process.

Huckelberry has spent more than a quarter-century training his supervisors not to play this game. It doesn’t work for him. He thinks it’s a bad look for his bosses heading into the spring season with those particular shades and textures.

The way it has worked is this: supervisors show Huckelberry a plan that can get three votes and then Huckelberry shows them how to properly get it done. Then it gets done (unless it’s a bond, in which case the county has proven pretty witless about how to win 50 percent of the vote plus one).

But if you want something done at Pima County, Chuck will show you how and lead the charge behind closed doors.

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Then at some point it comes for a vote, and the ayes will have it at the end of the process.

The 2020 local elections put Scott on the board along with fellow newcomer Democrats Adelita Grijalva and Matt Heinz — the biggest shift in the occupants of board seats in, well, forever.

And that new majority wants this policy done, even if they recognize the state should be the one in charge of teaching the children well.

"I completely agree this is a state responsibility," Grijalva said, but then declared, "it's not our obligation but it is our responsibility."

Heinz said that "Pima County can't do this alone" and "I will not pretend we're going to be funding this whole thing every year," but voted to move the idea forward.

Scott, who brought it to the board, declared "now is the time to act, to walk the talk."

"We cannot wait for others to lead," he said.

Supervisor Steve Christy, the lone Republican remaining on the board, said the framing of the proposal is "nebulous at best... who determines what is 'high quality'?" and voted against it, stating that "$10 million is too much of an experiment."

Chair Sharon Bronson, seeing which way her Democratic colleagues were likely to vote, put a finger to the wind with some skeptical comments but still voted in favor.

"There's no denying the need for early childhood education in our state... (but that is) entirely the responsibility of the state, not local jurisdictions," she said. "We cannot and must not engage in ill-conceived half-measures," Bronson said, noting that the county's "fund balance is low" and there has been "no commitment from anyone else" to help fund a county-wide preschool program.

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Even though "the devil will be in the details," she said, she voted a "reluctant yes."

There's a new three-headed sheriff on the board, with little appetite for how things have always been done.

What's more, Scott did something else. The brand-spanking-new supervisor knew he had the other two board members hooked with that new car smell and decided to walk Huckelberry around the block.

To a local government color analyst this is like a flea-flicker with a hook and ladder at the end. This is like a no-look alley-oop off the backboard. This is like watching your idiot cousin take a hit with two kings and drawing an ace.

You’ve never seen it before. You may never see it again.

Except … technically, it’s the way things are supposed to work on the Board of Supervisors. Elected members oversee the person in charge of staff and tell him the policies to pursue and they do it in front of everybody.

The biscuits of ruin

Practically, the right way to do it will end in ruin.

The Fiscal Year 2022 Pima County budget will be a document a few hundred pages long that will dictate how and where $1.4-ish billion gets spent. The county’s legally required duties like running a jail and operating courts are given cash needed for service to be provided at a certain level. That money is spoken for with existing tax dollars and a bunch of it is bankrolled by outside funding sources that legally restrict the money for certain programs.

Supervisors can’t just take Highway User Revenue Fund dollars or money generated by secondary property tax revenues and say: “Hey! Let’s build a preschool!”

Actually, I made mistake a couple grafs ago. The budget summary is a few hundred pages. The budget itself is much longer and includes line after line of budget commitments and fiscal restrictions.

Not only does Pima County Animal Care Center know how much money it has, it programs into the budget how much its going to spend on salaries for each officer, desks for them to sit at and mileage for them to drive. Even dog biscuits are in the damned thing and pre-approved by the board. Each dog biscuit Spot eats, is a new monogrammed pencil denied in a supervisor's office.

At the end of the day, there’s only as much money as the tax revenues will allow ... kind of ...

The budget is a juggling act of priorities – past and future – with a whole bunch of balls in the air but only two hands.

Scott just tossed the county staff a 13-pound bowling ball to juggle along with everything else. The $10 million he wants isn’t a series of line items to pay for a fully mature program. It’s just fiscal mass.

Imagine a board free to simply tell future staffs: “Unicycles and baby elephants for everybody,” followed two years later by “screw unicycles, everyone gets a shotgun.”

The budget process would become an unworkable mess.

So Huckelberry is right to point out the obvious.

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"There's a whole series of decisions that will have to be made," Huckelberry said. "Here's what it means, here are the trade-offs."

In service of ...

Good and thinking columnists have an unlimited number of fingers so we can always type “on the other hand.”

On the other hand, systems and procedures put into place to protect a professional civil service trying to do its job can become the end and not the means.

The very act of continuity can confuse the bureaucracy into thinking the system should serve itself and not the people they are hired to serve.

Devotion to that consistency can tempt the simple-minded to think that government is just a series of conspiracies out to thwart the public will. What use is democracy when public opinion is irrelevant?

When institutions are seen as serving themselves, people see little reason to sustain them. Frustrations can lead to rioters attacking the constitutional transfer of power from one president to another (rant against U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema deleted for space concerns).

RIP, good, good boy 

So what's next?

The county budget process will defend itself. A typical first move will often be the Draconian cut.

I'm going to exaggerate for the point of point-making but the county could say, "You want early ed? Fine. Then we're going to cut the sheriff's K-9 program and these dogs will die." 

Flash to picture of a happy-looking, tongue-panting German shepherd named "Bosco." Bosco is marked for certain death because Rex Scott can't be reasonable.

Now, clearly there are other ways to find $10 million dollars, which we will get to shortly and someone like me will explain it to you because your favorite subject to read about is accounting.

All readers will know is Rex Scott, that bastard, is going to kill Bosco.

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This is bipartisan budget mischief. I've seen both sides do it. It's probably been done to preserve the reader's favorite program. It's a classic move and the classics never go out of style. Heck, Huckelberry's pulled a National Lampoon move and put a figurative gun to dogs' heads before.

Paging Danny Eckstrom

So go get Dan Eckstrom, or learn to be him.

Eckstrom resigned from the board in 2003 and I’ll just say this about that: Nobody could confirm there was a grand jury but reporters were trying.

I learned more about the art of politics over one red chili burro with Eckstrom than I learned in half my Poli-Sci classes.

Let me digress here because this is just one example: If you, dear reader, are ever elected and cast a vote that you know will enrage some supporter, don’t fret. Invite the offended party over to your house, say on a Sunday morning.

Invite them in warmly. Take them into your office. Then plop your daughter on your lap and when the constituent suggests you might want to send the girl still in church clothes out of the room so you can talk. You just say: “No, this is our daddy-daughter day. She stays with me. Family, right?” Then win the staring contest.

Everything gets politely settled.

That’s an LBJ move.

Back to the budget: My apologies if I somehow suggested that might be a straight-forward document. It’s not. It doesn’t represent a single reality. It illustrates hundreds of them coexisting under the auspices of a single stack of papers.

Funds live inside of funds and money moves around in strange and exotic ways. I’m good with Newtonian budgeting. Then there’s the simultaneous quantum.

Eckstrom was the master of this kind of non-linear, fractal fractional budgeting. I once watched him clean up a $30 million internal deficit to Kino Community Hospital (now, Banner South) with a series of moves so bewildering it left all watchers speechless and confused. 

A proto-Tea Party crowd there to protest whatever the county did, got stopped dead in their tracks. Then they simply turned around and went for waffles muttering, "Huh?"

They weren't alone.

The Daily Star reporter and I had to be walked through it line by line. We knew our editors would ask, “Wait. What?,” and we knew we had no idea.

When we were done, it was the first time since college I felt like I needed a bong hit and a six-pack of Snickers. I kept the facts in my head just long enough for the story to run and then purged them like malware.

The point is there are ways to find money without finding money. Is it something that can be sustained year after year? Probably not. Could it help defend the textbook notion of local government where the top county executives work for the board and not the other way around? It could.

A reasonable mess

I don’t think it’s reasonable for the supervisors to jump into the budget process with a $10 million demand and expect the pros at Pima County government to find it without doing long-term damage.

If the board majority wants to pay for it, be brave and propose a tax increase. Or declare what specifically you're willing to cut.

Finding a good chunk of it is possible to translate the majority’s will – supposedly representative of the voters – into long-term policy. That majority shouldn’t have to re-fight Antietam with county staff just to get it done.

How the ever-professional Huckelberry adjusts to this new hydra with a tin star will determine how messy the next four years will be.

He appears at the outset to be willing to give it a shot by asking the right questions.

Chairman Xi in China is right. Democracy can make a wreck of the place.

God bless America.

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. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.


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have your say   

2 comments on this story

2
192 comments
Feb 17, 2021, 3:15 pm
- +

And Steve Car-Salesman-Huckster Christy made it clear in today’s Star who he represents: businesses. Period.

1
192 comments
Feb 17, 2021, 2:58 pm
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It’s way past time to put Chuck out to pasture, or circling the area on the Loop ....

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A new three-headed sheriff patrolling Pima County wants $10 million for pre-K spending. The fight begins.

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