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Opinion

The Tucson agenda

Tucson looks to invest flush city budget surplus in public safety, streets & transit

A quick look at what's planned for local government meetings

City Manager Mike Ortega will present his budget to the Tucson City Council during a Tuesday study session.

Budgets are documents that lay out policy priorities, and city officials are showing Tucson's priorities are streets, public safety and transit subsidies.

The source of that money and the size of the fund it comes from astonishes.

Just like Marana announced last week, the city of Tucson heads into the new fiscal year flush with cash. The size of its fund balance: $158 million. To put that number in perspective, the city projects to spend $627 million with unrestricted general fund dollars in Fiscal Year 2023.

Ortega, in more than a bit of sucking up to his bosses, congratulated council members on their vision and foresight.

"This balance is the result of the financial stability brought by the Mayor and Council's strategic decisions, direction, and leadership," Ortega wrote in his budget memo.

Alright, alright, take it down a notch, big guy.

I'm not saying that Ortega and the City Council haven't made decisions that have helped. However, that amount of black ink was certainly helped along by a rapidly growing national economy, shrinking unemployment, rising wages and — yes — inflation.

In fact, Pima County has a $137 million "fund balance," up $93 million from last year.

Who benefits within the city from this windfall of cash?

Ortega proposes spending $18 million on public safety capital expenditures, $15 million on city streets, and $14 million on transit services.

Although, the transit money looks like it's slated to go toward fuel costs, raises for workers and liability insurance. The federal subsidy that allowed for free bus service expires with the current fiscal year at the end of June.

One smaller item we've been following at TucsonSentinel.com concerns the city Office of Equity. The Council established the office two years ago, and hired a director this March. This coming year, Ortega is pledging $500,000 to start rooting out inequity in Tucson based on race, gender, sexual orientation and those not born into the ruling demographic.

The Council will get a look at Ortega's draft of the FY 23 budget during a Tuesday study session. No action can be taken, but the elected leaders can say "Hey, Mike. How's about moving this cash over there for me to vote for it when the time comes?" 

Ortega can then take the Council's feedback and change the budget accordingly. They are usually minor tweaks.

Traffic safety with zero vision

Then the Council will look at becoming a "Vision Zero Community." 

Is it wrong to say, that's what Tucson already calls Glendale?

What Vision Zero Community actually means is that Tucson would commit to a planning process to eliminate traffic deaths. That's right — all of them.

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I'm seriously hoping Vision Zero Network has cracked the code to autonomous transportation with a plan to eliminate at-grade intersections. Otherwise, the group is peddling policies that solve for human error or are looking for ways to fine people for a whole bunch more of it.

The Vision Zero Network is a national organization devoted to establishing a time when there are no traffic deaths anywhere in America. Then again, their website describes their goal as making streets safer. OK,  those are two completely different things.

It's like difference between wanting to crack down on animal cruelty and the Council pledging all dogs go to heaven. One is doable. The other is why people become Republicans. No deaths establishes an impossible goal to justify any number of rules, regulations and micromanaging.

And no, The Vision Zero Network's goal is not the same as "No More Deaths" on the border or fighting a pandemic.

The Council will head in the direction of the doable — if annoying to some motorists — during its regular meeting after the study session.

On that agenda is an ordinance that would speed limits across 51 street segments around town.

County budget sneak peek

Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher also released her proposed $1.9 billion county budget, but it's not scheduled for a Board of Supervisors meeting until May 10.

The quick and dirty of it is that Lesher's budget does not call for a property tax increase to raise the money needed to cover unfunded mandates handed down by the Arizona Legislature. Those state mandates will cost the county an extra $5.8 million but Lesher is recommending the board delay it a year.

The county has plenty of money to absorb the blow this year with that honking surplus.

That fund balance will designated to a list of budget priorities. Chief among them are $13.6 million for raises for county staff and $15 million to Banner-University Medical Center South Campus. Folks used to call it Kino Community Hospital. The county owns it. Banner runs it as a teaching hospital.

The county is also holding onto $43 million of the fund balance and throwing in $10 million for an emergency contingency fund.

When the supervisors do meet Tuesday, they will have a bunch on their plates.

Supervisors will vote on a policy to clean up "double dip" rules that allow employees to collect a state retirement pension and still earn a county paycheck.

If approved, the new policy would apply to the county administrator and clerk of the board, technically the only two county workers who are in the employ of the supervisors. The new policy would compel either of them to inform the board if they intend to retire and then return to work to collect the paycheck/pension combo.

Chuck Huckelberry, the former county administrator, retired and kept working without telling the board. The supervisors had to find out from TucsonSentinel.com. That's not the best look. Then again, there was nothing in the rules that said they had to boo to say about Huckelberry's move.

The board will also vote on their own redistricting map to carve up the the supervisors' five districts based on the 2020 census.

The big news here is that District 3 (Board Chairwoman Sharon Bronson's) will absorb precincts along North Oracle Road and District 1 will grab two Midtown Tucson precincts. 

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It makes Democrat Rex Scott's re-election a wee bit easier though "safe" is not a modifier that applies to the heavily GOP precinct. Bronson's seat is a shade more competitive, though I wouldn't call it a toss-up.

Joe Biden won Pima County by 20 percentage points. It's hard to carve up that kind of a margin to flip the Republicans' odds.

Board member Adelita Grijalva has requested an update on the county's "sustainability action plan." 

Lesher is proposing an eight-point plan to squeeze the carbon out of county operations.

In 2017, the county board voted to align county operations with the Paris Climate Agreement. Since, the county has cut their emissions to 26 percent below 2005 levels. The goal is now to go to zero emissions by 2030.

Society seems to adopt technology exponentially... a little, a little more, a lot more and boom, where did all the landlines go? Aviation was around for a while before the 1950s started seeing rampant adoption of commercial travel and by the 1980s, trains were stegosauruses. 

So 26 percent to 100 percent in eight years isn't completely nuts.

The Republican supervisor — yes, the Republican supervisor — wants the staff to discuss how quickly they turn around public records request from the public and the press. OK. We'll take it.

See Republicans, one can be an old school conservative Republican to the point where liberals want to throw their shoes at the screen when he's advocating for right wing policies and on can still believe in the basic institutions of democracy.

The supervisors will also look to give new Public Defender Megan Page a raise to $146,000. Consider she's a lawyer with ten years experience and she runs a staff of more than 150 people. 

OV sees signs

The Town of Oro Valley isn't known for a population that likes micromanaging businesses. 

Yet the town council will take up it's sign ordinance to make a number of changes to rules already in place. 

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Town staffers laid out the key changes and there are quite a few. The overall theme behind the update is "standardization" of banners and window signs, while streamlining and simplifying the rules.

The council will also discuss pedestrian safety in the area of Ironwood Ridge High School.

Must be something in the agua, that has the councils focused on the worthy but chronic background issue of traffic safety.

The reason I pulled you over ...

Marana's town council has an agenda item that reminds me of one of the great scenes in gangster movie history.

The film is "Snatch," and three low-level crooks have it in their head to hold up the hitman named "Bullet Tooth Tony (trigger warning and parental advisory)." Tony's not buying it because, as he points out, his gun has "Desert Eagle .50" written on it. And his befuddled assailants all have "Replica" written down theirs.

The council will vote to exempt police vehicles used for under-cover work from having "For Official Use Only" written on their license plates.

Yeah, that would be a problem ... wouldn't it?

Lest readers believe me to be joking, I'll let the Marana town staff's agenda background packet explain:

"State law (A.R.S. § 38-538) provides that all vehicles used by a political subdivision for official use must bear the name of the political subdivision and the words "for official use only." However, A.R.S. § 38-538.03 allows the governing body of a political subdivision to exempt official vehicles that are used for felony investigations or activities of a confidential nature from these requirements. Undercover police vehicles may be exempted under this provision. Per the statute, the Council may grant the exemption for only one year at a time."

Ummm .... who's enforcing this law? Are there cops who know Officer X is rolling with some smugglers and still bust him for it?

"Hey buddy, the reason I pulled you over is ... "

On a more serious note, the council will also be interviewing perspective planning and zoning commissioners during an executive session.

Typically, councils don't even conduct interviews to fill commission positions. Kudos to the council for putting their shoulders into the process. On the other hand, if they are going to conduct interviews, they should probably do it in public.

It makes it seem like "the Fix is In," even if P and Z commissioners serve only in an advisory role. I'm not saying there is one, but limiting closed-door meetings to absolute musts is a good way to fight the perception.

Fuentes clean up

Down south, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will vote on ending the state of emergency related to the coronavirus.

The County Health Department will make a presentation on the matter.

The board will also discuss what action it may take in the aftermath of former County Assessor Felipe Fuentes' guilty plea on bribery charges.

Fuentes took the plea after a federal grand jury indicted him on seven counts, including bribery, making false statements and conspiracy to commit "honest services wire fraud." 

The case involves  pegging property at inflated or deflated value — depending on what was best for the owner — in return for cash payments and use of property.

He faces five years in prison and up to a $250,000 fine.

Fuentes was first elected assessor in 1998 and resigned in 2020.

Not sure what's left to be done but, have at it. 

Nogales money matters

The Nogales City Council will get a briefing on their current budget and unlike the city of Tucson, the town of Marana and Pima County, Nogales is operating with much tighter margins. They have a $3 million surplus on $21 million in general fund expenses this fiscal year.

Could it be that the once vibrant cross-border economy has taken a beating in recent years and isn't bouncing back like the rest of the country? God bless the war on immigration, I guess.

The council will also get an update on plans to recover more than $400,000 in delinquent sewer and water accounts owed by 535 rate payers.

Nogales Fire Chief Jeffrey Sargent will conduct a briefing on fire fighting strategies.

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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The Tucson City Council will get a first look at a proposed Fiscal Year 2022-23 budget, with a huge surplus.

Tucson City Council

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Oro Valley Town Council

Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors

Nogales City Council

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