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Lesher seeks slight tax hike in a time of plenty in Pima County

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Lesher seeks slight tax hike in a time of plenty in Pima County

Supes also to weigh in on Title 42 & mining law, plus other action at public meetings around Tucson this week

  • Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher will unveil her proposed $1.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24. It could get dicey with the board.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comPima County Administrator Jan Lesher will unveil her proposed $1.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2023-24. It could get dicey with the board.

Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher is submitting her $1.8 billion tentative budget for approval, which includes a slight tax increase to cover for costs that the state has shifted to local governments.

Lesher seems to want to adjust the county's general fund budget upward a tad after the Great Recession forced supervisors to push it down. Now the trick will be to get the Board of Supervisors to go along on Tuesday, when she presents her plan for adoption.

The budget picture overall will run about 8 percent lower than the current spending, but that includes a bunch of COVID-19 dollars. I'm talking about the year-to-year budget unleavened by emergency cash out of Washington.

It's not a bad idea. Government budgets in Arizona tend to just keep getting crunched downward. They get axed during recessions, hold their own during recoveries and then – wham – another recession and another round of cuts.

It's not a bad idea to put some meat on the bone before another downturn arrives. 

As it stands, Pima County's total workforce remains 1,300 short of its peak of 8,400 in fiscal year 2008. So the county staff ain't exactly bloated.

The budget includes a slight tax bump, even as the county is rolling in a big surplus. The county's justification for the increase is a general policy to cover unfunded mandates imposed by state cost shifts with property tax adjustments, and another policy to bolster funding for road projects as bonds and other debts are paid off.

The state Legislature likes to cut spending — sort of. What they really like doing is absolving the state government of financial obligations and passing them along to the counties, which are local instruments of the state.

The total costs of these shifts this year run $16 million.

They look like tax cuts, but they're not really. Costs just move from one set of books to another.

But wait, there's more. The debt service portion of the secondary property tax obligation is expected to fall by 10 cents per $100 of a property's taxable value. Property owners pay for debt service with their secondary property tax. As debt is retired, that rate is supposed to fall. County policy is to  cannibalize 60 percent of the falling secondary tax rate into a primary property tax increase to pay for roads. Primary property taxes pay for daily operations and are set at the board's pleasure. 

So throw the $16 million in state cost shifts on the primary property tax bill and add another $14 million for "PAYGO" and property owners are looking at a 5.9 percent increase in taxes.

Here's what could be a rub. When the fiscal year ends at the end of June, the county expects to be sitting on top of $159 million in fund balances. The Board of Supervisors policy requires a fund balance equal 17 percent of the general fund, which is $93 million.

They are asking for a $30 million tax cut when they have $66 million more than they thought they were going to have.

Now, I've pointed out in previous columns that elected leaders see fat piles of "fund balances" (essentially cash reserves) and start rubbing their palms thinking of ways to spend it.

Unless, that is, someone is talking about raising taxes. Republican Supervisor Steve Christy will be a hard "hell no" and Democrat Sharon Bronson is a bit of a spending hawk. 

So I don't know where this is going. I could see Democrats like Adelita Grijalva or a Matt Heinz, representing working class South and West side neighborhoods, worrying about rising property taxes effects on senior citizens.

Lesher wants Pima County government to be a premier place to work. With the current labor shortage, most employers want the same thing so the price on that is high. She would set aside $26 million of those above-and-beyond dollars to pay for potential salary increases, adjustments to pay scales and higher costs to county benefits.

There's another $7 million earmarked for inflation and $7 million more for potential new cost shifts passed down by the state. Plus, there's $7 million more in the budget for housing projects. Throw in another $2 million for corrections officers pay and sheriff's deputy recruitment incentives. That's nearly $50 million of the county's $66 million year-end stash.

Lesher also wants to set aside $50 million in yet-to-be-known opportunities in grant funding (not out of the fund balance) because coronavirus funding has run out but the county is still looking for ways to fund programs the various rescue plans provided local governments.

A final point about the budget: County administration worked with supervisors from first days of compiling the spending plan. So the budget should include the various priorities of the board, which could prompt some to say "My god, all that stuff we asked for costs that much?"

Title 42

Lesher will also give an update on what the heck is going on at the border now that the feds have lifted a public health measure that allowed border agents to send asylum seekers away from the border during the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic is over and so is the need for the Title 42 policy. It ended Friday as the national press held a MAGA-style freakout about the impending "calamity" of human migration, which has been going on for about 300,000 years. 

It's an invasion! We're under siege! No shit Sherlock, say the Tohono O'odham, Pascua Yaqui, Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Sioux, Kiowa, Cherokee, Blackfeet, Iroquois, et. al. Go back to Cornwall!

The county is partnering with Catholic Social Services to move asylum seekers through a facility renovated using federal money. The county pays the bill. The social service organization does the work.

On day one, the county didn't do any "street releases" of the 1,600 migrants that filed through the county's facility. They all were set to move on to their destinations.

Pima County works in coordination with Santa Cruz, Cochise and Yuma counties on handling the flow of migrants. 

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday on whether to declare an emergency at the border, anticipating stresses on community services. 

As long as I'm mentioning the Santa Cruz board, they'll vote on a fireworks permit for Tubac Golf Resort, scheduled May 20 and promising 250 aerial effects. 

The Nogales City Council has canceled its scheduled meeting. Either the city is too slammed by migrants to meet or they've been to this rodeo before and aren't particularly impressed.

Copper COVID

Meanwhile, Supervisor Rex Scott will ask supervisors to oppose the Permitting for Mining Needs Act and the Mining Regulatory Clarity Act. Both are moving through the U.S. House of Representatives.

Both are part of a push to provide an easier approval path for hard rock mines, which are governed by an 1872 mining law plus a host of environmental regulations passed in the last 50 years.

These bills, favored by the industry, may find their way to President Joe Biden's desk even in a divided Congress. The Mining Regulatory Clarity Act was introduced by Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto and Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch. 

The bill is a response to a federal court ruling prohibiting the Rosemont Copper project from dumping mining waste on federal land adjoining mining operations. Environmentalists cheered the 9th Circuit ruling but the Biden team is said to be worried about the decision's affect on its clean energy program.

See, clean energy requires things like copper and cobalt that have to be mined. So climate action and mining are – for the time being – linked to one another. 

For a bill to pass the Democratic Senate, it would have to gain two votes. Cortez Masto is one. Anyone wonder if Sen. Kyrsten Sinema could be a second? Interestingly the bill might not be such a slam dunk for West Virginia's Joe Manchin. West Virginia does coal mining. Coal mining is "seam mining." Another West Virginia Democrat congressman named Nick Rahall tried in 1993 to do a massive overhaul of the 1872 mining law. West Virginians didn't like more lenient rules for hard rock mining than what governs coal mining.

Scott wants the board to take a position on the mining proposals, maybe sending a message to Sinema. Yeah, she'll listen to someone without a hedge fund (snort! snort! snort!).

On the coronavirus front, Christy is going to ask that all Pima County reinstate employees fired for failing to get the vaccine and give them back pay. 'Cuz Republicans don't think it's the government's business what people do medically, unless those people are pregnant women or transgender Americans.

Don't look for this measure to go very far, but watch Heinz's (Dr. Matt Heinz) blood pressure spike.

Christy does something like this every week. It's not really trolling because he's not making up realities from vapors of air. People were fired from the county. It's not quite bird-dogging, because he's not keeping anyone honest. The county was up front about the terminations of employment. It's more trogging. 

A group of animal lovers (we assume) called Friends of Pima County Animal Care wants to pay for a veterinary supervisors to oversee the departments mobile veterinary unit. They are providing a grant for $73,000 to help improve animal care in the region.

There's also a planned rezoning of 356 acres on South Wilmot and East Andrada roads from rural homestead to a small-lot residential designation that would allow for the development plan to build as many as 800 units.

The rezoning was approved in 2017 and in February, supervisors approved a five-year extension. The vote Tuesday is to tweak the terms and conditions.

Pima challenges

The Pima Community College Governing Board will discuss a three-year budget plan and obstacles to fiscal stability.

The plan is to maintain the maximum tax levy and keep tuition hikes to $2 per credit hour, while aligning capital investment with the college's strategic goals.

Chancellor Lee Lambert is pushing Pima to get leaner, if not meaner. His goal is to increase staff and administrator to student ratio, which has dropped from 20 per student in 2012 to 12 per student today. He'd like it back up toward 20.

The college is trying to adapt to "flattening" revenues and "struggling enrollment and declining outlook."

I can not emphasize enough how this should not be the case. The problem isn't so much PCC is screwing up as much as it appears the rest of the community fails to use it as a vital resource.

There's also an employee survey where staff was asked a bunch of questions and overwhelmingly answered "meh" as to job satisfaction and how well the district seemed to be doing in fulfilling its mission.

Respondents were asked to rate the college on a scale of 1 to 5. There were a bunch of questions and the answers universally fell between 3 (somewhat satisfied) and 4 (satisfied).

1/2 of what plus 1 is how much?

The Marana Town Council will vote to update its election rules, but no worries. This one makes sense.

A candidate receiving the majority of votes during a primary election is deemed the winner. That's in the town's ordinances. Some have asked for clarification as to how the majority is calculated. To me, it seems simple. It's the majority of votes cast. 

That's how the town staff wants it judged, too. I guess there could be some question about some other denominator that could be used, though I'm not sure what. If this clarifies things then cool beans.

There's also an ordinance up for a vote Tuesday that would exempt police vehicles used in undercover investigations from having to disclose their government ownership.

Yeah, that would be bad. 

Finally, the South Tucson City Council will hold another work session on the open meeting law, during its meeting Tuesday. They held one last month. I guess there's more to say.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 25 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

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