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RTA Next beset by internal hiccups, Marana looks at rules for AirBnBs

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RTA Next beset by internal hiccups, Marana looks at rules for AirBnBs

Santa Cruz County to tap Valdez as top exec, plus more in local gov't meetings

  • Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega is asking for the council's direction to help guide an RTA process beset by minor hiccups.
    Paul ingram/TucsonSentinel.comTucson City Manager Mike Ortega is asking for the council's direction to help guide an RTA process beset by minor hiccups.

The process for developing a post-2026 transportation plan for the Tucson region is starting to hit some bureaucratic snags and City Manager Mike Ortega is asking the City Council to weigh in on them.

I mean technically, he's just asking the Council to discuss some moving targets in the RTA plan, as projects get shuffled between RTA and the Arizona Department of Transportation list of regional projects that would be founded outside the half-cent sales tax in Pima County.

However, the information he gave the Council provided insight into the challenges that remain for a sustainable regional transportation plan.

No, I'm not talking about big snags that would threaten to ensnare the entire sales-tax plan to fix up roads and improve transit around the Tucson area. It's more like "Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. We gotta figure something out before we go much further."

First, there's something called the transportation improvement plan. It's federally required for Department of Transportation funding, whether the area has a Regional Transportation Authority or not.

Those updates are required every four years, which means that the Tucson area has until 2025 to come up with a project list that extends to 2028. Voters are likely to be asked to approve a project list for a second round of transportation investments ("RTA Next") to extend the sales tax beyond 2026.

Problem: Voters approved the existing RTA in 2006 and it lasts until 2026. Another RTA election is likely in the future, which would serve as the "how-to" guide when it comes to how to pay for what, which projects go where and in what order.

There's nothing in the RTA programmed for 2027 because that's when the money runs out without voters authorizing RTA Next.

Second problem: There is still the matter of RTA sales tax revenues failing to meet expectations required to pay for the 2025 to 2026 projects in the improvement plan. So the RTA does not have money to pay for what its supposed to program and can't really program what comes after the current RTA ends because the half-cent sales tax also ends in 2026.

However, that sales tax is not the only revenue paying for transportation projects across the region. The community still has access to Highway User Revenue Funds. The money comes out of gas tax revenues – again – regardless of the existence of the RTA.

That money is doled out by the state and the Arizona Department of Transportation has been asking "what do you want from us vis-à-vis the RTA."

The technical staff isn't sure how to move forward with this "non-RTA-funded" list of projects.

Meanwhile, the RTA's Citizen's Advisory Council is feeling a bit blindsided by how the technical committee of the local government geek squad is arriving at cost estimates for all the individual projects in the $2.3 billion plan.

Also, the idea now is to have the Arizona Department of Transportation pay for a bunch of the total cost. ADOT will be spending money in Tucson anyway, during the life of a hypothetical RTA extension. So why not have that funding conform with local transit priorities?

Third problem: There's the matter of priorities and feeling shafted. The technical committee is doing the nuts-and-bolts work. RTA Next's leadership is provided by the Pima Association of Governments.

Some representatives from the local governments (read, the city) keep raising concerns during meetings with PAG and are not walking away feeling like they are being taken seriously.

Those concerns are apparently being dismissed as "extraneous" or just ignored.

For instance, the city of Tucson wants to include in RTA Next's to-do list carbon reductions and street maintenance. PAG has been meeting those priorities with the bureaucratic equivalent of "yeah, yeah, whatever."

The Pima Association of Governments and its constituent units are juggling what to pay for out of an RTA Next plan that hasn't yet happened and federal money coming to ADOT anyway. .

If all the operable committees decide to pay for something using RTA Next money and voters reject the extension of the sales tax, then – poof – that money is gone. They can't just say "hey, let's use federal funds coming here anyway" because that cash will be scheduled for other things.

The state list is being reshuffled as I type. .

I'm getting deep on the backstory of these internal hiccups because Ortega seems focused on them.

He has asked the Council to "provide direction" on a list of recommendations made by the technical committee but provided in the agenda packet the minutes of meetings where all these bumps, snags and hiccups were discussed.

He's been sitting in on these meetings and could use the Council's help in dealing with the variables.

There are a lot of moving parts to the RTA and putting a plan together that is kosher with Marana cowboys and Tucson hippies is a bit of a trick.

Trying to be safe at home

Tucson councilmembers will also get an update on city homeless and housing initiatives.

Last year, the Council re-established the housing trust fund, expanded housing impact fees, created the El Pueblo Housing nonprofit and passed an ordinance forbidding landlords from rejecting tenants solely because of source of income.

It's action but it's a hard problem to fix without adding a enough of new housing to satisfy demand and drive down rents.

The homelessness crisis is largely driven by people who are in homes now and trying to stay there, according to city documents:

Most commonly, program participants are facing eviction, being priced-out of their housing, in need of temporary shelter or permanent housing, unable to afford basic utilities, and seeking support for their mental and behavioral health. The next most commonly occurring needs included increasing economic wellness by receiving disability benefits or employment and improving access to healthcare. Program participants living with substance dependency relate to a variety of supports when they are ready, using a harm reduction methodology.

The problem can't be reduced to junkies and criminals looking for shadows to hide in so they can wreak havoc on the good people of Tucson.

Meanwhile, the city has done an inventory of camps of people needing permanent housing and found that 80 percent pose little or no health or safety risk.

The good news is that the Vouncil is going to consider revisions to the city planning and zoning rules to speed up the development review process. Specifically, the revisions are meant to improve building approval process, remove barriers to small-scale infill and simplify development standards.

Also, supply keeps getting added – in theory at least. Two projects would build 145 units if approved during the council's regular Tuesday meeting. Builders keep seeking approval to build but that doesn't mean the backhoes are going into the ground.

Contractors can sit on final subdivision plats for years before turning ground.

Green fees and toxic responses

The City Council will vote to continue to impose Tucson's "Green Stormwater Infrastructure" fee on water bills.

This fee was established in February 2022 as a temporary measure and had a sunset date. In December, the Council removed the sunset date and now the plan is to make it permanent and use the revenues to pay for the Storm to Shade program.

What is green stormwater infrastructure? The city has a definition:

"Green Stormwater Infrastructure (GSI) is an adaptable term used to describe an array of products, technologies, and practices that use natural systems—or engineered systems that mimic natural processes—to enhance overall environmental quality and provide utility services including capturing, cleaning, and infiltrating stormwater; creating wildlife habitat; shading and cooling streets and buildings; and calming traffic. As a general principle, GSI techniques use soils and vegetation to infiltrate, evapotranspire, and/or recycle stormwater runoff."

See the stuff I gotta wade through to give you this weekly installment?

Yeah, it's whatever the city wants it to be. I know this because I'm pretty sure green stormwater infrastructure and traffic calming are two different things. Speed bumps and stop signs? Really?

Writers have to love how they just snuck the phrase "adaptable term" into a definition. I'm going to use that when Dylan and I get into arguments about certain meanings.

This fee is charged at $0.13 per hundred acrefeet of water and it's not going away, although low-income earners can be exempted.

On another topic, Councilmember Nikki Lee has asked city staff for a debrief on the response to a February spill of nitric acid on Interstate 10.

On Feb. 14, a truck overturned and dumped 3,575 gallons of the substance on the roadway. The driver was killed. No other illnesses or medical emergencies followed. Interstate 10 was closed to westbound traffic for 28 hours.

A big takeaway was local first responders coming to understand the Arizona Department of Public Safety should not be relied on to keep the public informed, Ortega wrote in memo: "We assumed DPS would provide adequate communication to the public as incident command. This was an incorrect assumption and we will not make this mistake on future events."


Valdez moves up in Santa Cruz

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is expected to hire Jesus Valdez as its new county manager after not much of a search.

Valdez, who has been public works director, became a lock for the county's chief executive job when current County Manager Jennifer St. John announced in January she was leaving the post after 23 years with the county.

Valdez was immediately promoted to deputy county manager ahead of the promotion to the top spot in July.

Supervisors will also huddle in a closed-door executive session to discuss the details of Valdez's contract.

The supervisors will also vote on proposed rate increases at the county's Rio Rico and Sonoita Elgin landfills.

Residential fees will be $8 a load up to 500 pounds and then $45 per ton after that. Commercial rates will be charged as a flat fee of $45 per ton.

In Nogales, the City Council will have a broad discussion about the city's planning and zoning department.

Though the city's agenda offers no further information, Councilmember Saulo Bonilla (who can have trouble playing well with others) requested the item.

The move comes after the council had a small rezoning blow up on them, as a request from the city's public works director to build a small apartment complex was met with booming protests.

Oh, sure, that person has a home

The Pima County supervisors meanwhile have a pretty light week.

The county will vote on a grant to buy guns for constables. The Arizona Constables Ethics Standards and Training Board has agreed to pay for firearms and ammunition.

The grant was already approved but apparently ammunition is hard to come by these days. So the constables' Phoenix HQ needs more time to get the rounds to Tucson. So the grant must be extended beyond April 30.

Pima County is on the hook for none of it but must change the date on the grant.

In August, Deborah Martinez was shot and killed trying to serve an eviction notice. There was an exodus of constables from the office since.

Here's something that doesn't happen every fiscal year: The county has already exceeded its budgeted revenues from hospitality taxes. So the county has $7.3 million extra to give to Visit Tucson.

Part of the windfall deposit followed one hotel property screwing up and making its payment to the city of Tucson for a few years (yeah, that person isn't homeless). The unknown property gave $3.8 million to the city, even though it was not in the city limits.

The rest is just from higher-than-expected revenues.

They will receive an update on housing efforts and vote on establishing two new voter registration staff positions.

A voting registration supervisor would do just that, help run the voter registration activities and develop operational procedures with a salary between $47,008 and $69,576 depending on experience. A voter registration specialist would serve under the supervisor but have a degree of autonomy. This position would pay between $38,355 and $57,179.

Attention Republicans of Pima County: Y'all sound serious about getting into early voting and voting registration drives. It may be a good idea to get to know these new hires, if they are approved.

Oh and a bit of wisdom. When someone is seeking help from someone else, it's best not to threaten their lives, their kids' lives or their dog's life.

South Tucson will hold discussions about the RTA and how the city's general fund is developing as the fiscal year progresses.

The big fiscal problem facing South Tucson is its fire department. The department has aging trucks in need of replacement. However, the one-square mile city has a discretionary budget that would be eaten whole by the price of replacing these vehicles.

The town is geographically compact enough that Tucson's fire department should be able to service the area on a contract basis but the issue is politically touchy.

Meanwhile, the Marana Town Council may start regulating short-term vacation rentals to the extent allowed by state law.

The Legislature jumped on the issue in 2016 when progressive cities started making noises about rules against short-term rentals offered via online portals such as AirBnB.

The state may have jumped too soon because these rentals were creating party houses in otherwise quiet, conservative neighborhoods. See, it started pissing off their suburban voters and neighbors.

Recognizing something should be done, lawmakers backpedalled in 2022 and gave local governments some powers to restrict short-term rentals.

So Marana can require an owner leasing out a property for vacation rentals to have a business license, notify neighbors, provide emergency contacts available with 60 minutes of getting a call from law enforcement, and that the proprietor undergo a criminal background check.

The town can forbid certain things but they are basically related to sex and drugs (no sex offenders, no illicit drug use, no adult-oriented business). Renters can play beer pong. They just can't charge guests to play beer pong.

Oro Valley just passed an ordinance like this. Scottsdale and Sedona have as well.

Marana Town Attorney Jane Fairall is asking the council to discuss a proposed ordinance based on a template provided by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns. The town can then provide direction. This is a first step.

Marana is asking for its own rezoning of 37 acres that are supposed to act as a town center, at West Barnett and North Sandario roads. The council will hold a public hearing on the plan during its Tuesday meeting.

This is vacant, town-owned land and there's no development plan for the property.

However, Marana is trying to get something going here and wants to make changes to a rezoning plan originally approved in 1990 and last revised in 2008. How's that for sweetheart deals? (See, that's a joke).

I just think its interesting that the town is trying to build its own main street commercial district out of farm land after reaching a population of just under 50,000.

Hey. Why not? Maybe they can get it done before the town is the size of Scottsdale.

A matter of principals

Meanwhile, the Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board will vote to extend the contracts of principals at four schools: Amy Cislak at Tanque Verde High School; Elizabeth Egan at Emily Gray Junior High School; Christine Rietz, at Agua Caliente Elementary School and Emma Batty at Tanque Verde Elementary School.

If people are happy with those hires, go team. If kids have a problem with any of them, they didn't fight The Man hard enough.

The Oro Valley Town Council is set to meet Wednesday, but with no public agenda yet posted as of this writing. That's strange. They are usually pretty good about it.

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.

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