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Tucson City Council moves toward reinstating Sun Tran fares

The Tucson agenda

Tucson City Council moves toward reinstating Sun Tran fares

Pima County Supes eye $50M windfall from ending balance, plus more in local gov't meetings this week

  • Sun Tran fees have been waived by the city of Tucson since the onset of the conoravirus pandemic. They're looking to make a comeback.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comSun Tran fees have been waived by the city of Tucson since the onset of the conoravirus pandemic. They're looking to make a comeback.

The Tucson City Council is continuing to take steps to reimpose Sun Tran fares after bus rides have been provided at no cost since March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted the city to suspend fares, and the cost has been covered by federal relief dollars set to run out at the end of 2022.

It doesn't seem to be a question of "if" the fares will return. It's more a matter of how.

During a Tuesday study session, the Council will receive updates about possible changes to how the fees are collected. City staffers are examining ways to pay without collecting money on the bus, but the issue of transfers complicates paying for fares.

Sun Tran's "farebox recovery" prior to the pandemic stood at 17 percent. That's the percent of cost covered by fares. No city of any size has anything close to 100 percent but Tucson is facing a dual threat of decreased ridership and increased costs.

Even with free rides, ridership has not recovered from a 2015 Sun Tran workers' strike. Prior to the picket lines being formed, the system averaged 20 million rides per year. That number began to drop with the strike's onset and continued to fall for years.

Prior to coronavirus, the annual number of riders had fallen to 12 million, and dropped to 10 million during the depths of the lockdown. It has recovered some to 13 million.

But the cost per trip has increased from $3.80 to just under $7. The standard fare costs $1.75 in 2020 but with discounts the average fare paid was below $.50 to $.60.

The system relies on strong ridership to remain financially viable. Improving convenience, by making payments easy and providing for a simple transfer system, would go a long way toward achieving that.

$125 million in projects

The City Council will also get a rundown of just how much of the Tucson's list of Regional Transportation Authority projects will be left out of the 20-year program approved by voters in 2006.

It's looking like $100 to $150 million worth of transportation projects originally sold to Tucsonans won't get done as part of the original package. The Council has to figure out what to do about those unfulfilled projects.

The major remaining projects include widening North First Avenue from Grant Road to River Road; Sunset Drive from Silverbell Road to River Road; and East 22nd Street from Interstate 10 to South Tucson Boulevard.

One option is to shove the remaining forward RTA Next, the second incarnation of the regional transportation plan expected to go to voters in the next couple of years. 

But that means Tucson will be playing catch-up. Voters had every right to expect the unfunded projects would have been completed in the 2006 round of the regional transportation programs. Then RTA Next would give them a new list of options.

The RTA requires voter approval and failing to complete the last plan could undermine trust in the community. Then again, sales tax revenues basically collapsed for about a decade of the RTA and the last projects scheduled were Tucson projects. 

Other RTA jurisdictions point out the city got an early injection of $200 million for Downtown's modern streetcar. The city chose to prioritize that project at the expense of more lane miles.

That makes sense if the city can direct its growth into the urban core. On the other hand, more congestion leading to the Northwest Side will leave engines idling, and lead to more CO2 emissions.

Solar and storefronts

The Council will also discuss an idea to establish a program giving low-income residents better access to solar power. 

A solar empowerment zone already exists in Tucson operated by Technicians for Sustainability and the Sonoran Environmental Research Institute.  Residents can get state and federal dollars to pay for rooftop solar. 

City Manager Mike Ortega told the Council in a memo for the study session the city could just expand that program or create its own.

It might be more cost effective just to weatherize existing homes for low-income residents.

The Council will vote during its regular meeting on establishing a visual improvement program for "legacy" businesses, operating for at least 25 years.

Businesses would be eligible for a 1 to 1 match of city and federal dollars to refurbish their storefronts. The city will be in charge of disbursing $100,000 of its own money and another $200,000 in grants available from the federal government. The maximum award would be $20,000.

A separate federal grant would open up another $200,000 for a match requiring businesses put up only 20 percent toward grants for as much as $50,000.

So that's a maximum of 14 business a year but seeing as only 20 "legacy businesses" are now a part of the registry the process doesn't look all that competitive.

The council will also vote on a land swap with Pima County to build a $1.6 million park in Barrio Nopal, in the area of South Country Club Road and East Drexel Road.

The money comes from a 2018 bond program approved by voters.

Money, money, money

Pima County could end up with a rather massive stockpile of cash to play with in next year's budget.

It's not a tax increases or a new grant somewhere or a bond approved when George Soros visited voters in their sleep.

Simply lowering the targeted year-end fund balance from 27 to 17 percent, Pima County could realize $50 million in extra spending.

The county staff wants the Board of Supervisors to establish a year-end fund balance policy, which it doesn't currently have other than "stay solvent."

Ratings agencies like to see a cash reserve equal to 17 percent the general fund (discretionary dollars) to justify a AAA grade for bonds. That's what County Administrator Jan Lesher is recommending. 

The county is now at 27 percent, largely from conservative forecasts and some healthy revenues.

The general fund runs $500 million deep. 

Government executives like Lesher tend to get agitated telling elected leaders they got more money for more toys. The supervisors run on promises to do things that cost money and they tend to hear from staff "there's no money in it in the budget."

There's all-day pre-K, housing projects for low-income earners, new parks to be built and other shiny initiatives that make voters happy.

Meanwhile, Lesher will be thinking "we really need to finish up the chip-sealing."

The discussion now is part of Lesher's initiative to get out in front of the budget process with supervisors being a part of its initiation.

Credit the county for trying to come have these conversations sooner in the budget process and seeking the board's priority list at the start of it.

That's smart politics and smart policy.

Poll watchers behaving badly

Supervisors will also get a final after-action report about the August primary election, which was the first to use new voting centers as opposed to traditional precinct-only voting on election day.

The Pima County Elections Department wrote in a memo to the Supervisors that election workers found the new system confusing at times and more training is required.

At the same time, Pima County Recorder Gabriella Cazares-Kelly reported general satisfaction among voters.

However, she also reported numerous instances of voter harassment largely by people we will call "outside observers." Cazeras-Kelly didn't report any arrests – just people acting like fools giving voters a hard time.

There were just a handful of incidents and none turned violent. Voters should just be aware that they share a democracy with people increasingly suspicious of it when they lose.

It's been a while since I've done a fireworks warning for dog owners. This is the first one since I've become one.

Yes, Ragnar Bloodsword is looking for monasteries to pillage if they can be found under the bed or near his pillow. He's a $16, 25-lb. mix and match the folks at the Animal Control Center referred to as only "one-half terrier and one-half 'brown dog.'" One-half Brown Dog was nearly his name.

So Ragnar Son of Ragnar has been advised about the 190 aerial shells scheduled to be set off at 8 p.m. on October 18 over Westin La Paloma Resort. That's 3660 East Sunrise Drive.

A good start in Nogales

The Nogales City Council will get a budget estimate for the first two months of the new fiscal year. 

A lot of smaller jurisdictions ask for this kind of regular update on the condition of the budget and in Nogales, it's better to be safe than sorry because they are operating on tight margins.

It's so early in the fiscal year that problems are not yet apparent and windfalls can't yet be trusted. Overall, the city's revenues ($2.7 million) are safely exceeding expenditures ($1.9 million). It's better than the other way around.

Down in Santa Cruz County, the Board of Supervisors will handle a bunch of mundane matters like accepting grants.

A couple stand out: There's a $1 million workforce development grant, which is just federal money to train adults for jobs that need to be filled. A million bucks is a lot of money.

Also, there's a $300,000 Economic Development Authority grant to market Santa Cruz county as a culinary destination. 

Even Vermonters need Sonora dogs.

Northwest tweaks

The town of Marana is looking to receive a $1 million loan from a state revolving fund to pay for a water park reservoir it is building.

Of that amount, $512,000 will be forgiven.

Marana uses recharge as a way to bank its water supply from the Central Arizona Project.

The Oro Valley Town Council is set to update a host of new zoning rules. 

Actually, they are tweaking and realigning existing rules to stay in compliance with state law and national standards. For instance, the national definition of a "cottage" can change and towns must adjust their zoning codes accordingly.

A substantive change is in "the missing middle" of residential development in Oro Valley's code.

Homes in the existing code are defined as either single-family detached or mid-high rise,  think The Hub-Tucson near the university.

What's in between – kind of like a fraternity or a sorority house – are projects that are low-rise but high density. They don't have huge footprints like a typical apartment complex but they are bigger than a traditional house.

This will be the first meeting since Town Manager Mary Jacobs disappeared into the night with a sudden resignation. Town leaders aren't saying why the top executive up and quit.

Deputy Town Manager Chris Cornelison has been named acting town manager pending a national search.

Teaching to a point

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board is set to approve a raft of new policies in the wake of changes to state law.

One change will require students be tested for dyslexia and that one teacher in each school between grades K-3 must have training in how to work with dyslexic kids.

The district will also observe 9/11 Education Day as part of the civics curriculum. 

Someone might also want to teach the kids about the day in January 2021, when supporters of a defeated president tried to violently seize power and put an end to American democracy. 

Catalina Foothills board members are also going to clarify that parents direct the education of a child, while schools have an obligation to teach children. 

If that seems wholly contradictory and impossible to enforce without one colliding into another, that's because it is. And it's done to comply with a new state law that allows parents to sue if their kid is taught in a manner that undermines that parental right.

Question: If I want my kid taught information about ,say, African Americans being red-lined out of home ownership but another parent doesn't want their kid to learn about any racist national practices, then who's right carries the day?

Also: If my kid is to learn that America has been great and unfailing in her greatness, then will the school teach that the American sexual revolution was part of that greatness?

I'm starting to understand why Arizona has a teacher shortage.

The Sahuarita Unified School District will update 16 new policies much in the same manner and to comply with state law. I ranted about that last week. I won't do it again.

Meanwhile, the Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board will meet Tuesday to approve a very standard consent agenda with only pro-forma items and then accept the district's financial report.

That must be done separately.

The Marana Unified School District Governing Board will pay out $500 in retention bonuses to district educators.

The provision was negotiated in a deal with the teachers' union but the district wanted to be certain the district was in a financially sound position before sending the checks out.

The district is also going to ask the Arizona School Facilities Oversight Board to begin an inquiry into whether Marana needs additional space for grades K-8 and grades 9-12. 

The oversight board monitors Arizona school needs and then doles out grants for new facilities as needed. 

Planning with a big bump ahead

The Tanque Verde Unified School District has 55 goals it will focus on as part of a strategic plan its governing board will vote on approving.

The action items fall under five headings: Student achievement, fiscal responsibility, high-quality professionals, school culture and community engagement.

The district is warning the Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey that it will be out of money on April 1, without lawmakers approving an override of schools' constitutional spending limit.

The board is urging the Legislature back into session to fix this problem before it becomes an emergency.

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

Meetings around Tucson the week of Oct. 2

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors

Oro Valley Town Council

Marana Town Council

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Sahuarita Unified School District

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

Tucson City Council

Nogales City Council

Marana Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

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