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From Oro Valley to Sahuarita, budget season puts teeth into policies

The Tucson agenda

From Oro Valley to Sahuarita, budget season puts teeth into policies

TUSD to put an end to COVID regs, plus more in local gov't meetings

  • Budget season descends on local governments.
    Town of Oro ValleyBudget season descends on local governments.

It's the most mathematical time of the year.

A whole lotta councils and boards are reviewing their budgets this week and right off the bat we must give a gold star to Veronica Moreno.

Moreno is South Tucson's interim city manager, city clerk, bottle washer, lead surgeon and pickup truck mechanic. Her challenges are manifest. The biggest problem the town faces is how to run a fire department with aging equipment while a couple new trucks can cost as much as her whole tiny city spends on everything in a given year.

The plan seems to be to let Moreno get South Tucson on stable footing and then hire a manager. So while South Tucson will discuss the budget, we don't know what it is because she doesn't have a staff of 20 to put it together while she does her day job of posting agenda material.

The budget process comes in three phases. The government's chief executive proposes a budget. The council or board of elected leaders poke, prod and alter the numbers and vote on a tentative budget, which locks in the top-line spending. Then there's a public hearing on the numbers followed by the government adopting a detailed final budget. 

A lot of the local town and city budgets projected for next year have big fund balances, which makes the tentative part easier. Sahuarita has a $113 million proposed budget that includes $32 million in fund balances. Need more spending? Just pull it out of the fund balance.

If South Tucson approves a $7 million tentative budget with a $50,000 fund balance, they'll have a lot less to play with when it comes to the final numbers.

The budgets must be done by mid-July, which gives localities a chance to cope with any changes the state might throw at them with its budget that starts July 1.

Back in the day, fund balances were targeted at 10 percent of the general fund to keep ratings agencies happy. Now, with the boom/bust nature of Arizona's economy, they have grown to 50, 60 or 100 percent of total operations in some suburbs.

Some politicians love surpluses and brag on them like profits. They are not. A surplus is a pile of dead money sucked out of the economy via taxes but not put back in to stimulate economic activity or support vital projects. 

Profits can be shared or pocketed by the owner of capital and make it back into the economy. They can be invested to grow and increase cash positions, which is a no-no in the public sector.

Sahuarita charges forth

The Sahuarita Town Council is moving the fastest on the budget track. They are set to vote Monday on a $113 million tentative budget after spending the weekend working on Town Manager Shane Dille's proposed plan. 

Sahuarita plans to draw down $20 million of its $52 million fiscal year 2023 surplus to pay for things like capital. Ordinarily, it's better to finance that and use stronger dollars of tomorrow to pay for present costs. Interest rates are significantly higher than they were in 2022, so that's a bit of a wash right now.

The big investment is $11 million in new infrastructure acquisitions for the Rancho Sahuarita Community Facilities District.

Basically, the town is building out capital investments in the district and then charging a fee on new projects within its boundaries to finance that spending. Current taxpayers aren't supposed to be on the hook for those.

In fact, taxes on Sahuarita residents account for just 15 percent of the town's $113 million budget. The rest comes from these special districts, state shared revenues and grant funding.

In Oro Valley, the budget picture is rosy and gets even rosier when the town spends down some of its reserve funds from this fiscal year. 

The town council will spend Wednesday and Thursday evening going over a budget expected to have a pretty good year in revenues, with sales taxes expected to rise by 4.5 percent, state shared revenue to increase by 31 percent and federal grants to grow by 53 percent (but that's just $202,000 in actual dollars).

The $147.9 million proposed budget calls for increases in capital investment and salary increases that would bring the town's ending fund balance to $52 million, down from more than $86 million project to be available in 2023. That "surplus" includes $44 million in capital projects. Think about it, that's just money that is supposed to be spent that hasn't been. Projects can take longer than expected to get going and no one budgets for a rainy day by stuffing dollars into massive purchases and projects. They just keep that money in a rainy day fund.

Interim Town Manager Chris Cornelison expects to spend a lot of its capital budget. The biggest chunk will be a $14.5 million investment in Naranja Park.

Levies, rates and revisions

Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert is proposing an increase of the primary property tax levy of 3 percent.

Aha! Grab the pitchforks and head to the district offices, because a tax hike is on the way, right?

Wrong. Levies differ from rates. Lambert's budget calls for a primary property tax rate decrease of less than 1 percent. 

However, the underlying property values have increased rather dramatically. So more money is being collected. That's called the levy. The rate is the price tag on the taxes residents are asked to pay.

The board also approved a tuition increase this year.

In all, Pima's budget will run $367.5 million and the biggest increases will be in the form of more big-ticket capital expenditures, increased faculty wages and a 27 percent increase in what's paid to support staff.

The Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board still isn't done with the budget for the current year.

The district has to make changes to what it will spend to its fiscal year 2022-23 budget. School districts have until May 15 to make these final changes ahead of the June 30 end of the current budget year. It's a $104,000 increase allowed because the math machine kicked out an updated allowable expenditure based on enrollment. The board must vote aye to a revised budget to exceed the budget as approved last year.

The Catalina Unified School District Governing Board will do the same with its current budget, to get the changes in just before the clock strikes May 15.

The district's number-crunchers are moving a bunch of minor expenses a few hundred thousand dollars this way and that to reflect changes to how much money has actually been spent versus what was projected.

CFUSD's maximum spending has decreased by more than $1 million based on declining enrollment, but the district had enough in cash reserves to fortify the losses in revenue.

The board will also talk during a closed-door meeting with attorneys about Superintendent Mary Kamerzell's performance the past year. Kamerzell published a long list of goals she sought to achieve during the current school year. 

The list ranges from teacher retention and furthering climate study to engineering communications strategies and overhauling the social studies programs. It really is an exhaustive inbox. Kamerzell apparently hasn't learned from Fortune 500 companies the key to success is to drastically underpromise and barely over-deliver, while blaming "uncertainty" as "a negative exigent circumstance."

CatFoot is live streaming this meeting, with no in-person public attendance, two weeks after canceling a meeting under what officials said were threats of violence. The district has been gripped by the pronoun fracas for about a month and meetings have grown contentious.

I'll cut 'em slack for a little cool-down period to see if the Red Pill (or acid) crowd learns how to behave in public. However, the pattern and practice of democracy is to hold meetings in public and let people say stupid stuff. It's as American as hating the Yankees.

We'll see how this goes.

Cash for teachers

Teacher pay is the focus of the Vail Unified School District Governing Board's Tuesday meeting.

The district is proposing the board approve a 4 percent raise for teachers next fiscal year at a cost of $1.5 million. That raise is in addition to a 3 percent mid-year raise awarded in January.

The district has yet to disclose the cost of a 6 percent pay raise for certified employees, who work in support roles. It's not a plot. The cost breakdown will a part of the budget process.

Teachers at VUSD are rewarded financially for coming up with lesson plans the district considers "above and beyond" the normal call of duty. Lesson plans developed for this incentives include exploration of Chinese culture, "Wright Flight" goal-setting curriculum and a Crazy 8 math club to get students "fired up" about orders of operation and the like.

In all, 4,718 points could be awarded for teachers striving to do more. Each point is worth $200 in direct cash payments, and $300 in tuition reimbursement for continuing education. The price of these perks would run between just under $943,000 to $1.4 million, depending which option teachers would choose.

Empty corona

The number-crunchers don't have a lock on the entire agenda of local government meetings this week.

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board is revising its policy on communicable diseases, ending the coronavirus pandemic policy calling for vaccination, testing and masking.

Under current policy, teachers had to provide proof of vaccination and regular proof that they had tested for COVID-19 and shown negative results. 

Masks have been strongly recommended but not required at TUSD since March 2022. 

The board will also vote on recommendations that it make minor changes to its overall communicable disease policy. The biggest difference in the new policy is that the district will now seek to protect the "school community" rather than TUSD students and staff. 

The school community can be far more broadly defined than those in a school at any given time.

Aside from that, the policy remains a commitment to take necessary steps to report and control the kinds of diseases that can spread through that community.

The indoctrination continues...

National Geographic's American Government and World History textbooks will be coming to the Flowing Wells Unified School District, if the governing board approves the materials this week.

Both textbooks, as well as a biology curriculum, have been up for public review for six weeks and the public – as always – was silent on both.

The board will also vote on a deal with Pima Community College to make college credit available in district classrooms. The agreement would last until 2028.

Most school district board meetings end with updates on the legislative agenda of the Arizona School Board Association. The lobbying group operating at the Legislature on behalf of elected school leaders is always fighting rear-guard actions.

Typically, these items are minor and boring.

The Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board's agenda is really light and the lobbying portion is the one thing that's interesting.

Right now is crunch time at the Legislature. When the session winds down in May, weird bills get introduced that tend to get slammed through in the middle of the night, without a public hearing. The Open Meeting Law does not apply to the Legislature. Why? Because lawmakers say so, that's why.

The ASBA is seeking a few things as witching hour approaches: Maintain desegregation funding to help pay for programs that desegregate the school system 65 years after Brown v. Board of Education, hold schools  harmless from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, protect teachers' due process rights (funny) and provide adequate funding for K-12 public education. Now I'm rolling around on the floor laughing my you-know-what off. The Legislature will not do that. Hopefully, they don't reduce school funding to Global South levels.

It's interesting to know what it is that the school board association is thinking and wondering if that means something is coming that would cross the ASBA in any of these areas.

My money is on the due-process rights for teachers. Let's just hope they can keep history teachers out of prison for mentioning James Earl Ray was white.

Joint effort

In Nogales, the City Council and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will hold a joint meeting to discuss collaborative efforts in the areas of parks and recreation, community development services and road paving.

Why not? Taking a regional approach to governing is always smart. City and County governments can act like they are competing interest groups and forget they are representing the same voters.

This happens a lot in Tucson. The county is suing the city over Tucson Water charging more money to customers outside the city limits. Well, 55 percent of county voters are Tucson residents. And every Tucsonan is a resident of Pima County. 

That's profanity in some circles. They do work together but seem to get more joy out of fighting.

So good on the Borderland people for working talking about regional approaches.

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

Public meetings around Tucson this week:

Sahuarita Town Council

Nogales City Council and Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

Vail Unified School District Governing Board

Pima Community College Governing Board

South Tucson City Council

Pima Community College Governing Board

Oro Valley Town Council

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