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Marana mulls ballot question on lifting budget ceiling, Tucson police not happy with pay

The Tucson Agenda

Marana mulls ballot question on lifting budget ceiling, Tucson police not happy with pay

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

  • This isn't the image of Marana anymore. It's more than dirt roads with ranches flung about them. It's probably time for the town to be able to budget accordingly.
    Google Earth screenshotThis isn't the image of Marana anymore. It's more than dirt roads with ranches flung about them. It's probably time for the town to be able to budget accordingly.

Marana has piqued my inner municipal geek with a proposal to go to voters and ask for a major change in how much the town can legally spend.

The town of Marana has been using "a home rule" option since 1985, because the yearly changes to the 1980 base limit has not let the town keep up with rapid growth.

Towns and cities are limited in what they can spend based on increases based on subsequent population growth and inflation. In cases where local growth outpaces what was envisioned by the state Constitution, governments have been allowed to ask voters for permission to spend more. This is not a tax increase, it's just letting a town spend tax dollars it already collects.

The thinking behind these limits assumes the cost of growth gently increases on a per-capita basis and is only tied to the overall cost of living.

It's one thing to make this argument with a city increasing its size over time from 300,000 to 500,000. Even then, it gets iffy. I don't like equating government budgets to family budgets, but when a married couple have a kid, their household costs do not increase the same as if they got a roommate. It's a whole new thing. There is an entirely new version of normal to budget for — from childbirth to college costs — associated with standard-issue offspring.

Marana's population during its base year of 1979-80 stood at 1,500. It's now over 50,000. The costs associated with that growth are in no way a straight-line deal.

The law has created some wildly distorted inequities. For instance, Goodyear has a population twice that of Marana. It's spending limit is at $555 million. Marana's — because of how percentages multiply chaotically — stands at $25 million. Cottonwood has one-quarter the population of Marana and a spending limit of $67 million. 

That's nuts.

Marana didn't even have a water department when Jimmy Carter was president and the Fonz was ruling prime time, town Finance Director Yiannis Kalaitzidis points out.

He also makes a very good point in his staff report that residents have different expectations of service in a town of 50,000 than they would if they move to a wide spot in the highway, like Marana used to be.

Kalaitzidis is recommending that the town council ask voters to change the baseline used to calculate the spending limit. That would let the town spend more what it collects without going back to voters every 4 years.

There are other options but it's probably time for the Marana Town Council to take a good look at what the community actually is, what it expects and what that costs.

Kalaitzidis is also asking the council to consider a plan to fully fund what the town needs to pay into the Public Safety Retirement Pension.

The fund is managed statewide out of Phoenix but all communities kick in their share based on their agreements with public safety workers. The state's job is to make sure the fund grows enough to ease the burden at the local level but without being so aggressive as to go bust and put the fund at risk and leaving all the jurisdictions broke.

Marana's commitment to future pensioners is funded at 63 percent (not bad, not great compared to other towns, cities and districts). The Finance Department is seeking council commitment to fund the liability at 100 percent by 2036. 

Cops, budgets and drama

The Tucson City Council will vote Tuesday on whether to approve it's final 2022-23 budget during a "regular special meeting." Only in American Bureaucratese can such a thing exist as a regular special meeting.

The final budget has prompted griping and sniping by Tucson police and to a lesser degree Tucson firefighters, who aren't sold on their final pay package.

The Tucson Police Officers' Association is asking for an arbitrator. Firefighters are still in negotiations with the city.

The city has a big surplus this year in the general fund, which apparently now stands at $330 million. 

The plan has been to spend about $30 million of that on big-ticket capital purchases for public safety and mass transit subsidies but leave most of the fund balance alone.

Several jurisdictions boast big surpluses this year and, again, I get wanting to have money for inevitable economic cratering. At some point, this just becomes hoarding.

Public safety workers wouldn't mind seeing some of that surplus come their way.

On May 24, TPOA formally protested the Fiscal 2022-23 budget, arguing it doesn't provide adequate wage increases. The city basically said we have taken care of you so no changes are necessary.

So the police union used their arbitration option, which means a three-person panel will be established to work out a deal. The city will get a representative. The union will get one and a third member connected to neither would be approved by the two other arbitrators. 

The final verdict would not be due until April of next year. So even if TPOA wins in arbitration, the raises would not be in effect until FY 2023-24.

Cops aren't the most sympathetic public sector worker these days. However, Tucson has a police shortage. Some of the money from the fund balance could be used for raises. But the surplus is better for one-time spending initiatives that year-after-year commitments.

Meanwhile, the City Council is voting to extend their existing contract with the Tucson Fire Fighters Association until Aug. 31. Without the extension, the contract is set to expire at the end of the month.

During a Tuesday afternoon study session, the Council will get a briefing about how the drought is now affecting Tucson and steps that should be taken to keep the faucets working.

The U.S. Department of Interior has announced a 7 percent decrease in the amount of water released from Lake Powell on the Colorado River. Lake Mead is rapidly becoming Mead Pond.

Tucson Water Interim Water Director John Kmiec is telling Tucson not to panic. Things are fine but stand ready.

The reduction will not affect Tucson's allocation of Central Arizona Project water allocation and the community has a lot of underground water stored for an emergency.

Kmiec, in a memo last month, also made clear Tucson should not get comfortable either because the southwestern drought is severe and ongoing. So he's asking the city to consider a long list of public appeals and policy tweaks to conserve water and prepare for the dry spell's continued bite.

The tweaks could morph into changes before becoming a full-on hullabaloo of an overhaul.

Again, don't panic ... buuuuuuuuuuuutttt ...

Merits discussion

The Pima County Merit Commission is throwing a minor fit over not having a say in hiring the lawyer that advises them, as allowed by state law.

It will ask the Pima County Board of Supervisors during Tuesday's meeting to be able to hire that atttorney.

The commission is a quasi-judicial authority that exists apart from the county staff and hears complaints about disciplinary actions taken against county employees.

The discipline would have been largely in line with Human Resources recommendations. Therefore, the commission has realized that an attorney picked by county staff might steer opinions toward a favorable interpretation of county actions. 

The commission unanimously insists on its own lawyer to help it make independent determinations.

The new attorney would be hired at the end of the current attorney's contract in February 2023.

Why would anyone think the county staff is pursuing its own agenda?

Well, Supervisor Adelita Grijalva wants to know why a plan approved by the Board of Supervisors to cover indigent bail bond costs in 2020 has yet to be put in place.

The board will get a staff update during the meeting about this program designed to reduce jail crowding. 

Love it or hate it, the board approved it. The staff's job is to get it done. Plus, it's a budget issue. Neither the Pima County sheriff nor the county attorney decide how money is spent.

Meanwhile, Supervisor Matt Heinz wants the board to join with the City Council and establish a joint commission on poverty.

About one in six people living in the Tucson area live in poverty. That's higher than the national average, though the recent poverty numbers are from 2020.

The commission's goals would include many of the buzz words associated with public policy like "inequities," "transition," poverty-perpetuating "structures."

I'm sure a commission will fix poverty in Southern Arizona. Those always work.

Supervisor Steve Christy wants an after-action report about the county's pandemic mitigation measures. 

How much the world is actually in the "after-action" phase of the pandemic remains an open question.

Christy has been pretty up front about never again taking a measure to fight fatal diseases if those measures might hurt business. To which I say: What if it's a hemorrhagic fever with a 20 percent kill rate?

At the same time, Pima County is like the rest of the country in that it hasn't dealt with a pandemic in 100 years. Why not look back and see what worked and what didn't, what the county would do again and what it would not?

On the matter of raises, County Administrator Jan Lesher will ask the board to make a decision about employee salary increases. She is recommending a cost-neutral plan in her budget to give lower-salaried workers a bigger raise and smaller bumps in pay to high-wage workers. Heinz is pushing his colleagues for a schedule of raises that would do more for those at the lower end than Lesher includes in her recommended budget. His plan would cost $5.3 million.

And what would a Board of Supervisors meeting be without a fireworks display to freak out the county canines?

At 9:15 p.m., on June 17, the Navarette wedding party will celebrate the nuptials with a four-to-five minute display of aerial pyrotechnics up at Skyline Country Club.

Many happy years and cover Fido's ears.

South Tucson mystery money, redux

Meanwhile, the South Tucson City Council canceled its May 31 meeting to review the tentative FY2022-23 budget.

Now it will try again but with same unfortunate circumstances.

The tentative budget remains a secret, which is kind of the opposite of how public information is supposed to work.

So if that's how they are going to be, I'll just re-post what I wrote last week because the same things apply.

The South Tucson City Council will vote on the town's tentative 2022-23 Fiscal Year budget. Tentative budgets are like final drafts necessary to hold public hearings before approving a final budget. 

So what's the town's position look like? Seems pretty good but seems is needed here because to the agenda is without an actual budget for people to look at.

In fact, just to figure out the town is in decent shape, I had to search the minutes of previous council meetings to find a rundown of the budget projections. 

It looks like the town will have a 33 percent fund balance, which amounts to $2 million. Basic math tells me the town's overall budget is $6 million.

Someone looking for South Tucson's budget shouldn't have to do math or search through previous minutes. It should be right there, up front and for all to see (June addition: Preferrably on the city's budget page).

Now, the city is going to hold hearings on the budget so one would imagine the numbers will be available then. Still, the other kids are posting their budgets and there's no reason South Tucson can't.
They are running a light operation with Veronica Moreno pulling double duty as clerk and interim manager. 

Could I have hounded them for my own personal copy of the budget? Probably. The point is that it's still not up there for the public to read.

Santa Cruz County 

Down near the border, the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors is set to vote on several small-ticket items like upgrading 911 service, hiring four communicable disease investigators, a deal with the Red Cross to deal with possible disasters and and the sale of surplus and obsolete county property.

The board will also vote Tuesday on approving a 20-acre vineyard surrounded by vacant land and without community opposition.

Also, the board will vote to honor the U.S. Army's 247th birthday, which is June 14. It's looking good for its age.

School ends...

The Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board will hold a study session to discuss a few items, including what do during a school crisis, an update on remaining COVID relief dollars and how to build a scrappy mindset.

Somehow those all seem to fit together.

The Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board will discuss the state's public records law in a slightly disturbing way.

During an executive session the board will get a rundown on what exactly it is they can conceal from the public and this is the only thing on the agenda.

Specifically, they want to know what records are privileged under federal privacy guidelines.

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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