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Monster meeting: City Council will discuss just about everything Tuesday

The Tucson agenda

Monster meeting: City Council will discuss just about everything Tuesday

Homelessness, budgets, RTA updates, PFAS, water conservation, cops & climate headline just one meeting in Tucson this week

  • Tucson's $2.2 billion budget tops a long list of agenda items the City Council will take up this week.
    PixbayTucson's $2.2 billion budget tops a long list of agenda items the City Council will take up this week.

I had an editor once who gave me a great piece of advice about covering meetings. 

It went: "Just because you sat through a three-hour meeting, doesn't mean the reader has to feel like they did too, once they read your story."

I'm going to try rely on that because the Tucson City Council will hold a study session Tuesday and here comes the kitchen sink. The council will discuss, oh, just about everything they've ever thought about discussing at any particular time. 

The study session is scheduled to last five hours and cover the state of the opioid crisis in Tucson, Tucson's conversion to solar power, how to hire and retain cops, the safety of Tucson's water, the condition of Tucson's streets after a voter-approved sales tax to pay for improvements, what to do about homelessness, the city budget, the Regional Transportation Plan's next program and whether Tucson will be involved, every single pay dispute among the city staff the Human Resources Department is considering. The Council will also discuss whether it should shorten winter.

I've been over the budget already and I'm not going to rehash it too much because the highlight is keeping Sun Tran free for another six months, as the city looks for ways to extend the service at "no cost." To riders, at least.

City Manager Mike Ortega's budget, as a document, is written for Council members and department staff. So those who scroll through it can be excused if they wonder if they've gotten dumber. The public at large is clearly not his audience. 

It takes a whole bunch of scanning and scrolling to find in the accounting columns the total spending figure of $2.2 billion and a $748 million general fund. The Council will vote on establishing a tentative budget, setting the top-line spending number.

The problem there is the Council will hold a legally required public hearing on the budget Tuesday evening, before they vote to lock in spending totals. So the public should be able to comprehend the numbers.

A big takeaway from this spending plan is the Council's commitment to using the city's surplus to pay for a whole bunch of one-time items, rather than stockpile it for a so-called "rainy day." 

The budget plans to spend $102 million of the $185 million year end surplus on pricey one-time projects the city has needed but hasn't been able to afford since the lean times of the last decade. Ortega originally recommended spending $88 million but the surplus seems to be coming in higher than expected.

So the idea is to drop $35 million on parks and recreational facilities. That's more than double what had been in his recommended budget gave weeks ago. Also, the city's neighborhood street program will get $8 million, up from $4 million that was originally proposed.

Public safety will also be a winner in fiscal year 2023-24 because city will build the Tucson Fire Department a new station and Tucson police officers will be getting another in a series of raises.

The city is projecting surpluses for the next few years but the the accuracy of that prediction will depend on U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani. If he decides to stick with U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green and her gang of nihilists and insist on total White House capitulation on debt ceiling negotiations, that surplus will likely become a deficit in about eight minutes.

The MAGA crowd might initiate a catastrophic recession thinking it's a surefire way to beat Joe Biden in 2024. 

Ciscomani is one of 17 Republicans representing districts that voted for Biden in 2020 and he narrowly won election in 2022. So, he's one of the likely candidates to save the country from economic chaos. Or he could bring the fire and brimstone.

All the budget stuff going on right now across Arizona, will require a major rewrite if Ciscomani believes it's worth it to blow up the economy if he doesn't get everything the ultra-right wants, including getting Biden to kill many of his legislative victories.

Seasonal truncating

Ortega wants the members of the City Council to shorten winter from six to three months. Bet ya didn't know they had Demeter-like powers. 

The truncated winter would be used to kick start the process of changing water rates on commercial and industrial users. 

Right now, Tucson Water uses bills in winter months to calculate business and industry's base rate. They then are charged extra in the summer. Rather than Tucson Water billing winter rates between November and April, winter would end at the end of February. 

The idea would be to perhaps increase water rates during the summer months and lower them during the winter to encourage conservation. 

The Council must give 60-day notice of an intent to change water rates and hold a public hearing before they vote to make any changes on bills.

The City Council will also discuss reauthorization of the the Regional Transportation Authority. Council members have been skeptical of the program. All jurisdictions have one vote on the RTA's board and that could mean the Tucson's priorities fall out of a final plan.

The plan is still in the "convoluted" phase as the the RTA board and Pima Association of Government staff are putting a final plan together and bouncing ideas off jurisdictions. 

The RTA board has set the funding at $2.34 billion. However, the region's need exceeds the available money. 

The board is still trying to figure out how much the state Department of Transportation and the federal government will be involved.

The Tucson council wants more of a focus on transit and to include pavement preservation funding that the RTA board has so far been discussing. The RTA is looking at a series of upgrades of arterial roads, fixing 50 intersections that are particularly dangers and reworking 34 overloaded intersections.

Councilmembers will get an update on the road improvements paid for by Prop. 411, approved by voters in 2017. The big item on the to-do list is a $7 million reconstruction of Bilby Road on the South Side. There's also a $2.3 million resurfacing of South 6th Avenue, and another $2 million on lights and sidewalks along West Limberlost Road.

Water and housing

We move on to PFAS. Let's try to get through this acronym-ridden hellscape without blowing any cerebral cortexes.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has put out a list of limits on six per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances contaminating Tucson's water in small amounts. The EPA's numbers are not enforceable until, probably, later this year. 

In the mean time, Tucson Water has already addressed the issue to keep PFAS below acceptable concentration.

The city is working to rid Tucson's ground water supply of this industrial cleaner. The state of Arizona has kicked in $22 million to do the job.

The contaminated wells – 22 of which have been shut down – run basically from the points of contamination at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Tucson International Airport along waterways and up the Santa Cruz River basin along Interstate 10.

Among other issues facing the city, how to find shelter for those without continues to be a problem.

While city staff and social service agencies are doing the best they can, they are running into the problem of addiction.

Most of the people the city is working with now are not on the streets. Nearly half the city's caseload are either people who are having trouble paying their rent or are getting or have been priced out of the market and can't afford a roof over their heads or are just managing to hold onto housing.

Ortega wrote in his memo to the Council: 

The sad truth is that for many (program participants) who are active users, we lose touch, either because we are unable to locate them, they change phones, or tell us they no longer want our support. This is an uphill battle that we will continue to fight. For those who are housed, they struggle to stay housed. For those who are unsheltered, it is a barrier to getting off the streets.

On May 16, voters rejected a franchise agreement between the city and Tucson Electric Power to allow the utility access to rights of way needed for maintaining the utilities equipment.

The Council will vote to accept the results of Prop. 412 and might want start discussions about putting together a new agreement. The current deal expires in 2026. Another election must be held before then.

Failing to get a deal in place in time would create extreme uncertainty and may end up costing the city leverage in negotiations. As soon as the lights to out, the protest vote will become a "turn-it-back-on" vote.

Once the Council meets to cast votes on new actions and policies, it will take up an election gone wrong and how to turn Tucson into a "Zero Waste City."

In this case, "zero waste" refers to municipal solid waste. We're not talking time on Twitter. The roadmap includes a whole process to engage with the community and develop plans and policies to stop filling landfills through actions like recycling, composting and charging more the more people toss.

Rapid fire, fiber & solar

Here's the quick and dirty about other discussions the council will hold.

  • The council will talk about how to increase fiber optics, serving only 50 percent of Tucson and 12 percent don't have access even if they wanted it. The goal is to provide a long-term funding solution to improve adoption of digital internet.
  • Tucson's City Charter requires a public hearing devoted to employees wishing to challenge how where their jobs fall into the classification system. That hearing was held last week and nine workers are protesting what is essentially their job's pay grade. The Council will get an update on those disputes during their study session.
  • Pima County Health Services Dr. Theresa Cullen will present an update on the state of the region's opioid crisis. I'm guessing it's not good.
  • There's another idea to cover rights of way with solar collectors that can help build out solar-powered "microgrids" around Tucson.
  • Councilman Paul Cunningham has asked the Council to discuss ways to hire and retain police officers. The police department has 137 openings, meaning they are 11 percent short of the workforce the city has budgeted. This seems to be a brainstorming session, with Cunningham starting the conversation by suggesting the city pay the volunteer reserve corps and hiring retired officers.

Pima Community College Chancellor Lee Lambert will discuss a cyber scholarship paid for by coronavirus relief dollars during the meeting as well.

In other meetings

On Monday, the Pima Community College District Governing Board will hold its own study session to discuss plans for the Downtown Campus and motel properties along West Drachman Street/Miracle Mile, and defeated former PCC board member Demion Clinco will be leading a crusade to save the fleabags.

Clinco was voted off the board by more than 20 points. He's president of the Tucson Historic Preservation Foundation and leading an effort to save three old motel properties from bulldozers.

The college has bought the Tucson Inn, the El Rancho Hotel and Frontier Hotel, directly north of the Downtown Campus. The college has been sitting on the properties since 2018 but are now ready to start figuring out what to do with properties.

So the college staff will get direction from the board now that the district is running healthy surpluses and starting to invest in their facilities.

That's Plan A. Plan B is to pretend like these buildings are historic because they've been around for a while and cool stuff once happened in them.

The Preservation Foundation has been sending out email blasts urging people to show up to save the hotels. They have 10 reasons. My favorite is that Ernest Hemingway drank at the Tucson Inn. He and I share the same birthday and passion for writing stuff down. But c'mon. Hemingway drank in a lot of places... like... a whole lot. And in 2017, when Pima bought the hotels, there weren't any global literary icons doing snorts there. The motels had fallen into disrepair. 

Also, the the foundation says that the hotels were touristy havens and I almost split a gut. 

Hey, I'm still mad the University of Arizona got rid of the Old Gallagher Theater.  The original Mama's Pizza and Gentle Ben's are both gone. I get misty about how we lost the Wendy's on North Park Avenue across from Mohave Hall. Time moves on. 

I had reason to stay at the Tucson Inn and Copper Cactus in the 2010s, for reasons I won't bother readers with and these place were not, not, not a major touristy draw. I wasn't rubbing elbows with Brad, Matt, Angie and George looking for a little kitsch.

The old signs are cool, though.

TPD could have saved itself a lot of time and trouble if it just leased a couple rooms as a substation. The psychotropic agents altering consciousness among the residents there weren't mojitos or rum and cokes. 

Speaking of which...

Opioid dollars

The Sahuarita Town Council will vote on entering an agreement with Pima County to get its share of the state's $549 million opioid settlement with major pharmaceutical companies over what can only be described as the "pushing" of dangerous painkillers.

Pima County will distribute $102 million and Sahuarita's share will be about $1 million, based on the allocation of the settlement. Tucson will get $23 million.

The money will be made available for substance abuse treatment, Naloxone, diversion programs, law enforcement and other costs associated with the pandemic. 

The deal Sahuarita is approving is the same deal all counties and local government must approve to make the money available.

The town will also vote on its benefits package for employees, which will see a 4.98 percent increase in Blue Cross coverage and a 4 percent increase in the town's Delta Dental plan. Discount dental and vision plans won't increase next fiscal year. 

The council will vote to approve a deal with the Green Valley-Sahuarita Chamber of Commerce to provide economic development services for the town.

Chamber representatives will do site visits to town businesses to identify expansion opportunities. This is part of the less-glamourous but more cost-effective retention and expansion kind of economic development. 

The glitzier recruitment is a costlier game that doesn't provide the same results. How many Tucson call centers have come and gone, after being recruited by economic development agencies?

 The Oro Valley Town Council will discuss possible uses for the Pusch Ridge Golf Course. 

Ya mean it can be used for chasing a little ball around the grass with a stick?

I have ideas but none of them are tasteful.

Read it all here

When it comes to textbooks, the Catalina Foothills Unified School District has done a really good job with the notion of "letter of the law."

State law requires a 60-day public review for text books before so that televangelist patriots can read examine them and protect kids from the kind of liberal indoctrination that teaches kids accurate history and multicultural math.

So the district's governing board will vote to put 26 pages of text up for review, all at once. 

The ban-the-books crowd doesn't read books and have noticeably done no review of anything put up for inspection. No way they are going to read 26 pages of titles.

Board members will also go over the proposed $44 million budget, which I have previously discussed.

The Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Governing Board is asking for changes to a lease with the Tucson Unified School District after the governing board voted for approval.

The school board voted on April 11 to agree to rent properties at 2102 and 2120 E. Broadway. Then the board decided to make changes, which were to increase the rent every year by the cost of inflation with a cap of 3 percent. The facilities board will also be able to reset the rent based on an appraisal at the end of the 25 year term.

The rent will begin at $66,000 a year, or $5,500 a month.

Also, the lease will not begin until the school district agrees the condition of the buildings are ready for use.

TUSD will operate a retail business out of the sites.

The TUSDboard will also discuss establishing Juneteenth as a holiday, Now June is after school lets out, right? True, but 1,768 employees work during the summer months. Between June 5 and June 29 of this year, they would only work Monday through Thursday. 

The cost of the holiday would run between $789,000 and $1.3 million a year, depending on the number of people actually employed in summer positions.

The district also conducted a poll about a possible bond election for November. 

The survey was conducted by California-based consultants FM3 Research and found 63 percent of voters would support a bond to varying degrees.

Moreover, 73 percent believe the district needs more money and 85 percent agree more teachers are necessary.

Another number may be more telling. Nearly a majority (46 percent) responded to the poll saying now is not the time for a bond because of inflation and the state of the economy, while 52 percent agreed now is the time. 

So support is there. Voters know Arizona schools are short-changed but they also have limited faith in TUSD. See, 47 percent disapprove of how the district works while 41 percent approve. Taxes are a concern for 50 percent of voters. Concern about "woke schools" rung in at just 37 percent and that was almost spot-on the share of the Republican vote for major offices in Pima County in 2022.

The Flowing Wells Unified School District will hold a study session Tuesday discuss its idea for a 13 percent over-ride election and also go over polling results. 

The district just doesn't release its agenda packet until 5 p.m. Mondays, so the public's taste for spending more there are anyone's guess.

Over-ride elections raise taxes to increase the operations' budget above a limit establish by a state formula.

The Tanque Verde Unified School District will hold a meeting, primarily to reschedule June meetings. The scheduled June 26 meeting would be turned into a retreat work session and the June 28 work session would be moved up to June 22.

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:

Pima Community College Governing Board

Monday, 4:30 p.m., hybrid meeting

Sahuarita Town Council

Tucson City Council

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

Oro Valley Town Council

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