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Should they stay or should they go? Tucson Council gets clearer look at draft RTA Next plan

The Tucson agenda

Should they stay or should they go? Tucson Council gets clearer look at draft RTA Next plan

Climate, economic development plans up for adoption by Tucson, Pima County, plus more in local gov't meetings

  • Road work in early March 2022 on East Ft. Lowell Road.
    Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.comRoad work in early March 2022 on East Ft. Lowell Road.

The end game is beginning for the next incarnation of the Regional Transportation Authority.

Whether Tucson remains a part of the plan will be determined pretty quickly.

During a study session on Tuesday, the Tucson City Council will discuss a new plan by the RTA Citizen's Advisory Committee that seems to do right by el Pueblo Viejo.

Back in January 2021, the Council was ready to bail on the whole program because the city generated 50-60 percent of sales tax revenues that fund the RTA, but had just one of nine votes in deciding how the money gets allocated to road projects.

Tucson wanted its fair share. Well, looks like they are getting it. 

Sales taxes collected with Tucson's city limits are expected to total $1.4 billion of the $2.3 billion in total revenues generated by a countywide during the 20-year lifespan of the proposed "RTA Next" extension of the transportation program. Warning: The guestimates made for the original 2006 RTA plan came up short of the projected $2 billion haul, leaving some projects unfunded.

The RTA's Citizen's Advisory Committee has a list of projects it has prioritized and that list would give Tucson its $1.4 billion back in the form of transit investments. 

Cool beans. Done deal. Right?

This gets a little tricky because Tucson is the urban core of the whole community. Oro Valley and Sahuarita residents are likely to use Tucson roads even if Tucsonans may be less likely to follow suit and cruise the 'burbs. So the whole region is messing up Tucson roads and I could argue the city deserves a bit more than its cut.

At the same time, there are an awful of lot lane miles outside Tucson baking in the sun. There's also a bunch of growth that's about to hit the outskirts based on the number of rezonings that suburban governments have been approving of late.

A plan on paper means the RTA membership now has a proposal to argue about. Tucson appears to be getting its fair share but fair share is very much a matter of who wins the argument by yelling loudest.

There is also a matter of Tucson wanting an entire category of RTA funding to go to road maintenance. I like this idea because that's money that that can get cut during lean times, although erosion never gets the memo that it's supposed to stop doing its thing. The roads deteriorate and the price of fixing them increases dramatically.

However, the RTA does not include this category. The broader RTA Next plan focuses more on adding lane miles than environmentally conscious Council members might like. 

Such criticism is fair but with a caveat. Mass transit won't be the answer for suburban commutes into Tucson. Sorry, it just won't. Tucson hasn't figured out how to make buses be the commute of choice in ferrying humanoids from Grant and Swan to the University of Arizona. Don't tell me it's going to work any better getting Dove Mountain residents to Downtown.

So the question is, how well does traffic flow south from the nether regions into town? Too much congestion means too many idling engines, which are bad for air quality and carbon emissions.

Plus, the City Council will vote on whether to adopt Resilient Together, Tucson's long-awaited plan to deal with climate change.

More is to come on this, but it's a bit of a mixed bag but more good than annoying.

The plan came about after a year of listening, visioning and strategizing about how to address keeping Tucson carbon-neutral by 2030. The Council adopted that policy in 2020.

There are a lot of buzzwords in the plan, which is also replete with "how-we-did-it" recaps of the engagement process.

On the other hand, there's some interesting stuff. Tucson emits 6.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. The surprising fact is that 56 percent of the city's emissions come from electricity production and use rather than the tailpipes of vehicles.

Those emissions are expected to go up 13 percent if all the major players like Tucson Electric Power and the city, follow through on their current plans to deal with climate change. If not, emissions will increase 61 percent.

So what could be done to get Tucson to deal with this?

Well, read to page 91 of the 155-page plan and find some ideas like retrofitting existing homes to be more energy efficient, develop standards for new homes construction and create a revolving fund to help small business owners pay for their own upgrades.

Those are three good ideas. They were also obvious and old in 2020. Why did we have to wait three years for planning, visioning, listening and strategizing to come up with them? I may just have a different definition of the term "climate emergency."

Onward and upward, I suppose.

I, personally, think that at some point a climate bond may be required to pay for the investment this plan may require.

The 411 on ADUs

The Council will get an update on the progress of projects funded by Proposition 411, a voter-approved program to fix Tucson streets.

The $740 million plan was approved in May 2022. A bond oversight board met in January to start reviewing priorities. 

They don't have a bunch done but they do have a map.

The study session item appears to be a half-hour of "remember that sales tax plan we got extended? Stuff is going to start happening."

While typing about what's up with things the Council approved, they'll get a rundown of how the city is embracing new "Auxiliary Dwelling Units" allowed in the land development codes.

Seriously dudes, come up with a better term. No one puts grandma in an auxiliary dwelling unit. Sounds like we're having her freeze-dried.

ADU's are basically casitas, small, detached guest houses the Council approved in 2021. I really liked the idea.

So far, Tucson's response can be described as "yeah, OK. Fine." A grand total of 61 property owners have applied for an ADU (ack ... cough). Property owners have  and that's not nothing. None have been built but the city has approved 23 permits.

That's not nothing. It almost qualifies as "something." I wouldn't call it the next big thing. It's worth considering. This won't solve Tucson's affordable housing challenge.

With construction costs being what they are, the numbers represent an OK debut. 

Meanwhile, the city is ready to bring some changes to its development review process to the Council for discussion.

The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended a list of changes to the existing development code. They are designed to make it easier to build smaller-lot subdivisions and townhouses.

The process began with the city reaching out to the public for ideas about how to improve the approval process. The good citizens of Tucson came back with 130-plus responses and they had a clear signal (ha, ha) for the city: 1) Make it easier to build and 2) increase regulation.

They're a bit at cross purposes.

Some members of the public wanted higher standards for projects to improve urban design and aesthetics, with a side of climate urgency. The other takeaway was that it was too hard to build in Tucson.

In fact, some remarked about how it's easier to build higher density in the county than the city. That's bad. Density should be easier in the urban core, less the city inadvertently encourage sprawl.

The recommendations range from making it easier to sink wells, reduce parking requirements and change setback rules regulating the distance from walls to property lines.

The Council will also vote to call the 2023 city election during its regular meeting, which follows the study sessions.

Elections must be called and in the case of this particular city, they must be called as a mail-vote-only election because that's the only way the city does it.

Council candidates will face each other in ward-only primaries held Aug. 1 and the winners will square off in a citywide election on Nov. 7.  Seats representing wards 1, 2 and 4 are up for election this year.

Mayor Regina Romero is also up for re-election in 2023.

Paul Cunningham and Nikki Lee may face a multi-candidate primary challenge. Two candidates have filed statements of organization showing they created campaign committees as they gear up to challenge Cunningham in the Democratic primary: Lisa Nutt and Helena Owens. Meanwhile, Lee may face a primary challenge as candidates have pulled petitions but haven't officially established campaigns.

Romero looks to be running against two independent candidates, Zach Yentzer and Ed Ackerley, who both set up campaigns to run against the incumbent. Neither have to win a primary, meaning both could end up on the November ballot. That would effectively split the anti-Romero vote and likely easily re-elect her to a second term.

Pima open for business

Guess who else has a plan? Pima County supervisors will get a look at the county's new economic development program. Go team.

I  feel ya if you are wondering why all these local governments are going their own way on economic development when the region has Sun Corridor, Inc., which is supposed to do improve the job picture across Southern Arizona.

Sun Corridor is the re-imagined update to the Tucson Regional Economic Council established after reconfiguring the Greater Tucson Economic Council. Local economic development pros have done a better job rebranding themselves than they have rebranding Tucson as a low-wage town.

However, credit County Administrator Jan Lesher with this one. 

What the county staff has put together represents something of a break with the past. The new plan has a strong focus on retention and expansion and a little less dependance on praying for out-of-town saviors to come set up shop.

Helping 100 businesses hire five more employees through access to capital can be a lot more cost-effective than offering the whole dang ranch to Omni Corp so they'll bring in 500 jobs.

Finding a couple startups that turn into Fortune 500 companies could do a lot to increase wages, if they headquartered themselves in Tucson. In that case, other businesses could make bank serving the homegrown business gone global.

The plan also calls for working to improve the county's business-friendly image. Believe it or not, it's long been better than the city of Tucson's. A lot of that stemmed from former County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's reputation as a get-things-done guy.

Seems like Lesher is now telling business, "You can deal with me."

Pima County Attorney Laura Conover had a plan to establish a community bond fund that would assist certain eligible offenders with gaining pre-trial release if the bail amount was $30,000 or less.

That plan has hit the skids. The county has twice sent out a request for bids so an outside business or nonprofit could run the program, however no qualified vendor bit on the opportunity. 

So now the county can either put the request for proposals out for a third time or look for other ways to reduce the bail burden on low-income people accused of crimes and sitting in jail waiting for their cases to reach fruition. 

The supervisors will discuss their options Tuesday.

Caterpillar, Inc. will hold fireworks displays at 8 p.m., on March 12, 13 and 19, assuming the board approves the permits. The display will be at 5000 W. Caterpillar Trail in Green Valley.

Westin La Paloma will hold their own display March 21 at 7:30 p.m. The fireworks are slated to be launched at the resort, 3900 E. Sunrise Road. So warn the kids and distract the dogs.

Bad dogs, top dog

The Marana Town Council has dogs on the mind and it seems like the town may be tempting mass canine incarceration. 

The council will vote on an upgraded ordinance to deal with vicious, threatening, or destructive dogs by easing the definitions of each.

The revised language divines a "vicious manner" as a dog approaching people and growling, showing teeth, snapping, biting, charging, circling, cornering a person or domestic animal or creating a reasonable fear of imminent attack.

Marana would now define a destructive dog as a dog that chews, rips, digs, scratches or destroys,

I'm not sure that just a growl is sufficient grounds to classify an animal as vicious. Scratches and digs? They've met dogs, right?

An aggressive dog could be defined simply by barking.

Clearly the ordinance is written to give animal law enforcement more leeway to say "Fido's messed up" some digging and barking? Some dogs dig. Some dogs bark. Mine doesn't bark but the other day growled at the window. It freaked me out. Ragnar Blood Sword is an ironic name. It's not descriptive. 

I think we may be over-defining aberrant behavior in our critters and with Pima County Animal Care Center being so overcrowded might lead to more dogs put down.

But I mean people don't really like dogs. Right?

Sahuarita Town Manager Shane Dille is up for a new contract the Town Council is scheduled to vote on during its Monday meeting.

Dille will earn $198,000 a year and get a $400 monthly car allowance. 

I don't know why I think its lavish that he would also receive 7.7 hours per pay period of vacation time. I do, though. His maximum vacation accrual would be 480 hours. That's 12 weeks of vacation. 

I don't mind high salaries but that seems a bit much. 

The council will also get a look at the 2023-24 capital budget. Capital means one-time, big-ticket purchases, and the town is looking at a $7.6 million reclaimed water facility upgrade and a $6.5 million rennovation of Sahuarita Town Hall.

The Pima Community College Governing Board will vote on a tuition increase of $3 per credit unit. That's right: $3. There is a decimal in there. So a 15-unit semester would cost another $45.  

In a time when college tuition is rising by thousands of dollars at a time, a $90 increase in annual tuition isn't crazy. Remember, the state of Arizona stopped funding Pima and Maricopa county community colleges altogether in arguably the dumbest thing the Legislature did under Doug Ducey's governorship.

The college's board will also vote on approving contracts with the Federal Correctional Complex-Tucson and the Arizona Department of Corrections to help get inmates an education.

Meanwhile in Santa Cruz County, the Board of Supervisors will vote on a $464,245 grant to increase the budgets for drug interdiction and investigations. This is additional money to be received in a deal with the city of Tucson.

The High-Intensity Drug Interdiction grant comes from the federal government and Santa Cruz County is acting like a subcontractor of sorts, and the city of Tucson more like a general contractor. Tucson gets the grants and then disperses it according to set legal arrangements made with other jurisdictions.

Santa Cruz County will be responsible for kicking in $45,000. 

Threats & tech

Students in the Sunnyside Unified School District will get mass-shooting training from Sandy Hook Promise.

The Newtown, Conn.-based charity was established by parents of the 2012 mass shooting in that town. The foundation would be contracted to teach Sunnyside students recognize the warning signs of an impending massacre.

Students will be trained to recognize warning signs – in person or on social media – that may suggest an impending slaughter at their school.


I mean...

Please, Legislature, talk more about drag queen story hour 'cuz they are such a threat to children.

The district will also buy 40 iPads with 64 GB of memory as part of a technology bulk buy with COVID relief funds. 

They will also get 40 cases and 400 lifetime licenses as part of the $170,236 deal.

The Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board will conduct a review of its code of conduct. 

The district didn't provide any further information but it's listed as an information and discussion item, rather than an action item.

In Marana, the school board will vote on a new elementary school reading curriculum meant to boost student achievement.

The district will award the contracts to Fundations by Wilson Language Training Corp., (a Massachusetts-based educational company), and Scholastic Literacy from a Pennsylvania educational company.

The 60-day de-wokifying comment period has come and gone, so the board is ready to vote.

The Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board will vote to award a network security contract to Hye Tech Networks and Solutions, a Phoenix firm. 

The contract is part of a deal with the Federal Communications Commission's E-Rate program to give school districts a deep discount as they try to amp up their technology.

Finally, I've saved the best for last. 

School districts, as part of regular business, sell off surplus property with approval of the supervising school board.

Amphi is selling some 10 old laptops, a Dell tower and a DVD player, just like it's 2007.

But they are also selling off a VCR. 

That's right. They're selling the last Video Cassette Recorder in America right alongside an overhead projector. Those were old when I was in school and I fought triceratops off to keep my lunch money.

So, if someone wants a novelty for Antiques Road Show, circa 2044, now's the chance. 

"A strange feature about this device is that, if we turn it facing front you'll see a screen. That's where the number 12:00 would flash over and over. No one is sure why..."

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

What's on the agendas of local government meetings this week:

Sahuarita Town Council

Monday 6 p.m., special meeting

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Tuesday, 9 a.m., regular meeting and addendum

Tucson City Council

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board

Pima Community College Governing Board

Marana Unified School District Governing Board

Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board

  • Thursday, 6 p.m., regular meeting

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