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Tucson City Council to discuss how to pay for free Sun Tran bus service

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Tucson City Council to discuss how to pay for free Sun Tran bus service

Pima County to end last coronavirus protocols, plus more in local gov't meetings

  • The challenge of keeping Sun Tran free for riders is front and center before the Tucson City Council.
    Paul ingram/TucsonSentinel.comThe challenge of keeping Sun Tran free for riders is front and center before the Tucson City Council.

The Tucson City Council on Tuesday will discuss options for keeping Sun Tran bus rides free for all.

The city's staff has some ideas to make up the $10 million in lost fares. One of the more interesting proposals up for discussion during the City Council's work session would create a parking levy.

This is basically a new category of taxes for parking spaces that would be placed on Tucson businesses (I'm sure they'll be fine with it). The idea would make it a tiny bit more annoying to park and that, in turn, could mildly reduce some road traffic and maybe even encourage more ridership. It could also raise a good deal of money. That's not a bad way to reduce carbon emissions and continue to provide help for Tucson's subsisting on low wages at a time of rising rents.

Other ideas include working with businesses to get them to pitch in some cash so that their workers can get to and from the job and somehow working with the University of Arizona to get it to toss in a few (hundred thousand) bucks to keep bus service free for starving college students.

The Pima County Republican Party has come out against this with a Monday morning email blast to its faithful, urging them to sign their names to a form letter.

"FREE Bus fare is not free when you raise taxes and impose levy’s (sic) on citizens and businesses. We simply cannot afford more taxes. This is bad policy for our community and is bad for Tucson."

That's a legitimate (if grammatically challenged) argument.

What isn't a legitimate argument is in the email's next paragraph.

"I want busses (sic) to be safe and clean again. The free bus program needs to stop as it is not safe for drivers or riders and has become a method to transport fentanyl around our community. Organized retail theft is being facilitated by the bus being free as criminals are timing their theft and getaway with the arrival of the free bus."

Oh, calm the hell down. Can the GOP not be vile for one email blast? Why not just say "put poor people in prison?"

By this logic, Pima County should ban cars because our streets are just "fentanyl dispersal systems." Insoles work that way too. 

I was on the bus just yesterday and it was both clean and safe. Maybe not enough to smooch, but nice enough to ride.

The Council has asked the city staff to come up with ideas to keep ridership free, which it has been since the beginning of the pandemic. The feds have been footing the bill but those dollars went away last year.

Tucson is picking up the tab until June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

City staff have been looking for ways to make up the cash on its end. However, with just three months until the end of the fiscal year, all they have are general ideas. None are ripe for the picking and this Council doesn't move anything like "fast."

Then again, the consultation required to make some of these partnerships work probably shouldn't be sprung on the other party.

Meanwhile, the city is sitting on top of $183.6 million in excess reserves, which could be used for fiscal year 2023-24 to buy the staff and Council more time to turn ideas into policies.

Councilmembers will also discuss ideas to help address the rental crunch on Tuesday.

Tucson needs thousands more apartments (or as the local GOP would call them, "fentanyl safe spaces") because more than half of local apartment dwellers are paying more than they can afford without sacrificing certain necessities.

So the electeds again asked the staff to come up with ideas — and one of them looks ready for pouncing on and it's something I have already championed.

The idea is to change the zoning code to encourage more density in certain parts of Tucson. Changing zoning can take a few different forms. 

First, they can start rearranging designations to "upzone" parts of town or they can change the rules within the zoning designations to allow for more densities. Another way to do it is to create zoning overlays, which keep a neighborhoods existing zoning but also allows developers the option to build with more units per-acre within on overlay zone.

An overlay zone is just an incentive to create infill, improve affordability and prevent sprawl.  An infill incentive district has worked well Downtown and along in the 4th Avenue area to encourage student housing and higher density development in Tucson's urban core.

Also, Councilman Steve Kozachik has asked for an update on federal housing funds available for emergency solutions to people needing a roof over their heads.

The city has about $3.8 million available in different pots of money from different grants. Each is tied to a specific policy purposes and the trick is to get them to match Tucson's needs now.

And of course, all of this leads to Tucson's biggest and most chronic issue: How long must this be the Low-Income Pueblo? Tucson is a low-wage town and has been for decades. Someone should do something about that so grocery stores can triple prices. 

Tucson is looking at adopting a pair of policies as part of a broader initiative to increase prosperity. These policies aren't ordinances. They're just guidelines Tucson can use to move toward a better tomorrow.

First, the Council would adopt a policy that seeks housing mobility. That's another way of saying 'don't let poverty be concentrated in just a few areas.' Spread it around, so there's a little everywhere rather than a bunch somewhere.

NIMBYs hate this stuff. They want all the bad things in society to happen where they can't see them. However, surround poverty with prosperity and it will lift the poor up rather than bring the better off down. 

Also, the city will be discussing early childhood education as a way to improve residents' economic prospects.

Now we're cooking with gas (until the libs take that away), because Pima County already has its own early education program but could really use some municipal partners. The Pima Early Education Program has had a rough go finding takes among towns like Oro Valley and Marana. Here, Tucson and Pima County might find a policy area where they can play nice together.

The Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce backing the county's plan, so there's already business buy in.

City relations with Pima County will cool quickly because Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz wants to discuss safety in the Pima County Jail.

Yeah, I was wondering when Tucson was going to start clanging the bars.

A number of inmates in Pima County's custody have died at the county jail. An alarming spate of deaths has forced Sheriff Chris Nanos and the Board of Supervisors to put together a commission to study the problem. 

Nanos will tell anyone who will listen that he's seen a marked increase in inmates and a pronounced decrease in staffing since the depths of the pandemic. OK, fine. Now what will be done about it? Everyone will just wait for the commission, I guess.

The city needs no lectures about staffing. City Manager Mike Ortega reports the employee rolls show 620 openings among 4,700 positions. The city clerks office, for instance, has 11 openings and 27 total positions. Environmental services and emergency communications are also hurting for people and eager to hire.

The city will be announcing one key hire, as a new Business Services director has accepted the job.

Ortega selected Casa Grande City Finances Director Angèle Ozoemelam to fill the post at a salary of $193,000 a year. She'll be in charge of the money stuff.

Following the afternoon study session, the Council will vote during its regular meeting approving hiring of the new department head.

The Council will also vote to accept federal grant money to help pay for services to those who need emergency food and shelter because of lingering effects of the pandemic or because they are seeking asylum in the United States.

The grant would bring in $823,000 and is part of a $75 million federal program to address both challenges.

Gentle aside: It's not a crisis that people want to come live in the U.S. A crisis would be if people who clamoring to leave America. 

Finally, the City Council will also vote to let Pima County run a special city-wide election on May 16, so the people can approve or deny a new franchise agreement with Tucson Electric Power. 

TEP uses city rights of way for power lines to electrify the region. In exchange, the utility pays the city a small fee and makes some minor concessions. The wires are already there. The election is to let TEP continue to maintain them so the lights stay lit.

Hasta la pandemic

The COVID pandemic is over! The COVID pandemic is over! At least it's over according to Pima County. Boy, did I pick the wrong moment to just sneeze.

On May 11, Pima County supervisors will vote, during their Tuesday morning meeting, to put an end to social distancing, remaining mask requirements and fogging offices. After that, it's basically back to 2019.

OK, Supervisor Steve Christy, tell your fellow Republicans that you did this. 

The Supervisors will also get a first look at the county property tax rates for fiscal year 2023-24 and the rates are coming down. Sort of. 

County voters have approved a number of bonds in the pass and agreed to raise the secondary tax rate to pay for them. Those bonds are being paid off so the secondary tax is coming down by 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation of property.

Voters set this tax rate by voting yes to bonds and establishing special districts for things like flood control but those tax rates don't change. 

On the other hand, the supervisors control the primary property tax rate and the plan now is to raise them by about 3 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. Assessed valuation is how the county vaguely estimates the worth of a piece of property. 

So the one tax the supes don't control is going down just because bonds are being retired, but the tax the supes do control is going up.

Look, these rate swings aren't huge and taxes are coming down less than 2 percent. They just could be coming down more.

What's the culprit? Voters and the Legislature. Voters have been rejecting county bonds for the last 10 years or so but erosion still happens so costs that would otherwise be born by bonds have instead been paid for by taxpayers through a different tax. Kind of. 

This year, because property values have increased, the board will be able to reduce the property tax rate by a penny per $100 of value and still raise the $14 million the county will need to make basic road repairs. Yes, the rate is coming down but it could have come down by more if the county didn't need to raise that kind of money. Then again, had voters approved bonds they'd be paying more in secondary taxes.

The Legislature, meanwhile, loves to talk tax cuts but they pay for them in part by unloading state costs to the county. The hit this year will be about $14.6 million. The board has adopted a policy of paying those bills with new taxes.

This is the county's way of telling voters to stick it to the Legislature? I'm not sure intricate tax math works well on a campaign bumper sticker.

All of this is penny-ante stuff but it bugs me that they are hiding tax increases in one category with tax cuts in another. Then again, stuff costs money and erosion happens. The county has been doing it for decades and every year I balk like an A-ball pitcher.

Meanwhile, Pima County keeps appointing temporary judges well into their terms.

Judges Pro Tempore Bobbi Berry, Oscar J. Flores, Jr., Robert Forman and Virjinya Torrez's terms all began Jan. 1 and will last until June 30. 

The board will approve their appointments on April 4. 

One, two, three ... six months. That's halfway through their terms.

I don't think this can be good. Somebody, someday is going to get bitten in the ass by the these late appointments. The same thing has happened before.

Former Ajo Justice of the Peace John Peck, who along with ex-JP Susan Bacal was not appointed, called the decision "shameful" in a letter to the board.

“The majority votes have been discussed and determined, and the decisions have been made. I am not ashamed for Judge Bacal or myself, but for a process that values backroom maneuvering over proven judicial commitment, demeanor, experience, and accomplishment. Isn’t the latter what we hope for in our judges?”

I'm sorry. Don't judges make decisions in back rooms?

I haven't heard of complaints about Peck or Bacal but some employees serve at the pleasure of the board and they each stay employed if and only if they have three votes on the board.

The First Amendment and sexy candy

The Pima County Attorney's Office has issued a ruling barring a member of the public from county meetings for three months for violating board policy prohibiting slanderous statements. A local law firm has declared that an unconstitutional privation of the woman's constitutional rights. 

The law firm in question is Munger, Chadwick and Denker. John Munger is a somewhat prolific local Republican and his team decided that county resident Shirley Requard was unlawfully barred after repeatedly declaring Supervisor Matt Heinz a pedophile. He's gay, so clearly ... (eyeroll).

Heinz was videoconferencing into a recent meeting and there was a man in frame behind him, wearing swimwear. I'm not going to go into the whole soap opera, including the letter daring to give veracity to Requard's goofy claims. 

It's unbelievable that one party would resort to calling their political opponents child molesters just because those opponents oppose them. It's equally gross that Munger's firm would pretend there's credence to the claim. Yuck.

It pains me to do this, but I don't like barring anyone from a meeting because they said something terrible. It goes against the democratic principles this country was founded on and which a surprising number of Republicans suddenly have no use for, other than when it suits them.

Doesn't make them wrong.

However, I might have asked "Tell me. If when you see RuPaul, do your thoughts turn to kids having sex? If they do, then I think we've found the problem." Or "What does it say about you folks that green a M&M turns you on if the shoes are sexy enough?"

Conservatives have plenty of reasons to oppose Matt Heinz without calling him a pedophile. Opposing taxes is as old as civilization itself. No need to insist that anyone helped by public welfare programs is just using them are menaces to society. 

Republicans might want to try being nice just once in the 2020s. They might win some votes.

Finally, County Administrator Jan Lesher will also give an update about the county's efforts to address homelessness and public safety, while Supervisor Rex Scott will give an update about the Regional Transportation Authority's status ahead of a voter reauthorization before 2026.

AirBnB limits

The Marana Town Council will vote on a new ordinance imposing the limits of what the state Legislature will allow in terms of regulating short-term rentals.

Turning what was owner-occupied housing into vacation homes has taken off since apps like AirBnB have taken off.

The state won't let local governments do much to stop it, even as communities are finding vacation renters can be terrible neighbors as these homes can become party houses.

Under state law, local government can require property owners to obtain a business license and notify neighbors that they will be renting out a home on a short-term basis. The law allows ordinances to bar anything relating to sex or drug trades. Folks on vacation can hand out beer at parties. They just can't sell tickets to a kegger.

Marana will vote to do what it is allowed to do.

Oro Valley approved a similar ordinance last year.

The council will also vote on final subdivision plats for 128 homes on 49 acres near Linda Vista Boulevard and Twin Peaks Road.

The council OKed the overall project in 2006, when it approved the Cascada Specific Plan. It subsequently approved Linda Vista Village in 2016 within the bigger plan. 

Plats are just final blueprints for subdivisions and the final approval elected leaders give prior to the developer applying for a building permit.

Up in Oro Valley, former Tucson City Manager Mike Letcher will lead a discussion about the town's strategic planning process.

The draft plan includes 16 goals that are pretty much what one would  expect. Make the town a cool place to live, work, raise a family and retire, with a responsive government that engages the public.

The South Tucson City Council will vote on an agreement with Pima County to help it out with development services.

Development services handles building, zoning, land use issues and permits for construction. The city's whole development services budget is $250,000. That's like four people ... without any desks.

The council is also having a broader discussion about the minuscule municipality's Fire Department. Yeah, this talk is going to be tricky and sticky.

South Tucson simply can't afford new fire trucks or equipment but still has firefighters on the payroll. A new firetruck can cost millions. The city's total general fund budget is $6.3 million.

The obvious solution is to contract with the city of Tucson and try to protect their firefighters' jobs in the deal. 

South Tucson tends to outsource a lot but, remember, this is how many more affluent neighborhoods incorporated, as they originally sought to capture municipalities higher share of state sales tax dollars without all the messy government operations.

Open meetings and judges, redux

The Sahuarita Town Council is holding a special joint meeting with its planning and zoning commission to be brought up to speed on the conditional use permitting process and the open meeting law.

The CUP process is how developers ask for permission to build a project even if it fails to conform to zoning without asking for a rezoning. Cities and counties have a lot of discretion here. They can ask developers or builders to jump through certain hoops to operate the non-conforming use with a list of conditions. Hence, "conditional use permit."

The open meeting law is, well, the opening meeting law. Scheduled public meetings must be posted 24 hours in advance and follow certain rules of order. And yes, anyone can go and call any number of their elected leaders "pedophiles."

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors have a novel idea. They're going to vote for three judges pro tempore and their terms don't start until July 1.

Whadaya know? It's doable.

Judge Vanessa Cartwright will serve full-time, Sheila Dagucon will work part-time, while Dee-Dee Samet will volunteer her time.

The Santa Cruz County Attorney is asking the board to approve a $494,000 grant to fund two positions to deal with drug trafficking crimes, plus a narcotics detective and law enforcement support workers.

The High Intensity Drug Trafficking grant will pay the salaries of the new staff but the county will pay for some benefits that are not covered.

The money comes from the federal Office of Drug Control Policy.

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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