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Tucson City Council to consider hiring 206 more staffers; COVID dollars keep flowing

The Tucson agenda

Tucson City Council to consider hiring 206 more staffers; COVID dollars keep flowing

Ortega will ask Council to consider Phase 2 of city budget

  • Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega offers council Phase II of his budget, which includes 206 new hires.
    Paul ingram/TucsonSentinel.comTucson City Manager Mike Ortega offers council Phase II of his budget, which includes 206 new hires.

The budget process is over now that the deadlines have passed and spending plans have been set.

Or so we thought.

During a Tuesday study session, the Tucson City Council is expected to discuss $82 million in "supplemental" spending to go along with the nearly $2 billion budget approved in June. It's meant to hire 206 new city employees. 

This was always the plan. 

City Manager Mike Ortega told department heads to move along two budget tracks. Phase one was putting out a standard-issue budget based on the last fiscal year.

Phase two was for the city to identify a bunch of new spending priorities for fiscal year 2022-23. Mission accomplished. Here comes new spending in the high eight figures. The bulk of it will be devoted to hiring new workers.

Notice I didn't type "additional spending." The money will be paid for from accounts within the city's existing finances. So the city's budget limit approved in June still stands. Even contingency funds are legally budgeted money and therefore part of the city's overall spending capacity.

If the Council approves the move, the City Attorney's Office would get four new staffers to work on domestic violence cases. Environmental Services would get new crews to clean up homeless camps. Tucson police are asking for 82 new officers and Ortega is recommending an equivalent of 50. The Human Resources Department is filling what it calls a "temp work force." How the hell is a union-supported Council is going to approve that?

That's the idea.

This feels sneaky, even though it's what passes for on the level from an accounting standpoint.

I can see where Ortega would want to tell city departments, "OK, give me the budget you know we can afford year over year. Next, give me your wish list now that we are flush with extra cash and coming out of a pandemic." There's some strategic utility – I guess – in keeping those two processes separate.

It still feels sneaky. Just include it concurrently with the budget.

Gentle aside: For more proof that the U.S. is not in a recession, the city is going on a hiring spree. If this were an actual recession, the city would be cutting 200 workers who would be competing with umpteen dozen laid off call-center workers for the one job opening at Walmart. The job would go to a cashier's idiot cousin.

This is another way of saying: "Boy do I wish this were my recession. Cuz my recession suuuuuccckkkkked.

Yes, I get that additional workers leads to an economy more soaked in dollars, which leads to higher inflation that brings higher interest rates, which triggers a recession. Even Ortega explained in a memo to the Council that the city can weather such an eventuality.

Aside from that, agendas for local government meetings this week are pretty light after a summer month that clearly limited the amount of business government staffers can put before councils and school boards.

Flying discs over Tucson

During the Council's Tuesday study session, staffers will brief our elected leaders on the state of cybersecurity and critical infrastructure. It will be done behind closed doors during executive session.

The Council will then be in a position to "direct staff" on how to proceed. Council members can't take official action during study sessions but they can tell the staff to come back with something for a vote during a regular or special meeting. 

The Council is expected to approve master plans for Jacobs and Santa Rita parks, while declaring an emergency. No, the absence of parks master plans does not constitute hurricane-level reasons for worry. It just means the master plans immediately take effect.  I sense deadlines for parks grants that require master plans.

The Tucson Disc Golf Association may be getting a resolution to allow for new courses around town.  

The disc golfers pay for the courses' "construction" (such as it is) and maintenance. Still, we live in a desert and there's a minimal amount of park space. Disc golf is a bit niche but parts of this town just lost its collective mind over losing the grassy stretch of Reid Park called Barnum Hill. I'm assuming there's a need for more of that space.

The association would present options to the Parks and Recreation Department for approval.

The councilmembers are also slated to vote on expanding the $300 tool allowance for city maintenance workers to include the Maintenance Division Equipment Shop in the Water Department. They were omitted from the existing allowance.

The Council is set to appoint Tucson attorney Vanessa C. Moss and former chief Deputy City Attorney David Deibel as special magistrates. They will be paid $125 for each morning, afternoon or evening City Court session over which they preside.

The Tucson Transit Task Force is slated to get its 12th (yes, 12th) extension since its establishment as a six-month creation in July 2008. The city keeps finding more work for it to do. Maybe make it permanent?

Plan V from the Northwest Side

Speaking of multiple iterations, the Marana Town Council will hold a study session just to discuss its impending strategic plan. It's the fifth time their original 2008 strategic plan has been updated.

The plan, as it now exists, focuses on quality service, good government and public safety, economic development, better communication and "visionary community leadership."

That's where you lose me. The fourth version of the plan is hardly exactly a lights-out, bleeding-edge plan. That's fine. Marana is not exactly a a lights-out, bleeding-edge kind of town. Town plans have to reflect the community's ideas of what a government should do. 

Back to school 

Moving onto schools, the Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board will vote on changes to the district's salary schedule. 

Bus driver trainees will earn minimum wage and the stating salary for drivers will increase by $1 per hour. Most of the changes are increases for non-instructional positions that are usually on the lower end of the pay scale.

The Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board will vote on a plan for online correspondence courses, because that worked so well during the coronavirus pandemic.

Mary Kamerzell, superintendent of the Catalina Foothills Unified School District, will present the governing board her personal performance plan for the upcoming year.

It's a lot like the Marana strategic plan. It's her to-do list and it's fine. I would like to see elements of both to include some metrics showing either progress or failure to advance. 

The one interesting item I found was her commitment to figure out why certain students are having problems. One would assume the district is doing it now, but after the pandemic, student progress takes on a whole new relevance.

COVID relief still giveth

Meanwhile, the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will vote on a pair of federally funded COVID-19 relief efforts.

One would give TUSD staff $250 if they get a second coronavirus booster shot. The second would hire five new teachers in positions the district has had a hard time finding candidates filling.

That equates to $2.6 million for TUSD as part of the American Rescue Plan. 

That legislation has done a lot for Tucson. 

At its Tuesday meeting, the Amphitheater Public Schools District Governing Board, for instance, will receive an update on capital expenses and a bunch of the work is compliments of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief portion of the 2021 coronavirus relief funding. 

Specifically, the district is using the $2.8 million to pay for heating, ventilation and cooling upgrades at number of its schools. I don't know about you, but this columnist thinks A/C is pretty conducive to learning in the Sonoran Desert. I would argue it's necessary.

Local governments keep spending American Rescue Plan dollars long after the program was passed but I bet most voters think that stuff all concluded last year. It's a-what-have-you-done-for-me-five-minutes-ago world.

Well, a couple weeks ago, TUSD used COVID relief dollars to buy 3,600 iPads for students. Who doesn't think that this is important in the knowledge economy and with Luddites likely doomed in the tech-heavy economy to come?

School districts in Arizona are flat-out underfunded, as we consistently rank in the bottom three states in the country. Any additional money coming into local schools isn't inflationary. It's much needed.

Sun Tran is still free until the end of the year and that's making a big difference in the lives of low-income riders being able to get to and from work. Also, anyone living in the city limits complaining about gas prices, the bus may provide a free ride to and from work.

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.

The Tucson agenda

Public meetings around Tucson this week:

Tucson City Council

Tucson Unified School District

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Marana Town Council 

Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

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