Sponsored by


Note: This story is more than 3 years old.

What the Devil won't tell you

Now what? Bond failure leaves Pima County looking to Phoenix

Huckelberry's next move is to work through RTA for street repair sales tax

You know you are having a bad day when you are a government run by Democrats in Tucson and your only lifeline is the Arizona State Legislature.

Could be worse. You could need Jeff Sessions.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors are in that position now that voters rejected their bond proposals for the second time in three years, but all may not be lost. It's on you, you crazy business community.

In 2015, voters thwacked a host of bonds. One might have called them a potpourri of bonding adventures. Parks, community centers and the whole dessert platter of wanna-dos across county government went to the public for approval. Voters killed them with electoral panache.

And on Tuesday, the county got the answer after asking voters for a more targeted, streamlined, must-do-or-die list of road repairs. And again the answer was no.

“We’re kind of out of local options,” said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, when asked Friday "what's next?"

The county had previously tried going the route of a unanimous vote from the Board of Supervisors to raise sales taxes to pay for roads. This was after a 25-cent property tax hike dedicated to road repair failed to meet the growing need for repairs. Laws of physics are so damn pesky with wear, tear and deterioration.

Next stop: Arizona Capitol Complex.

State law gives the Pima County Regional Transportation Authority the power to charge a half-cent in sales tax, which is right now dedicated to building new roads. So supporters of a road bond would have to wrangle 31 votes in the State House of Representatives and 16 in the Senate to raise another half-cent of taxing authority for the RTA. The RTA would then go back to voters and ask for the money.

Like what you're reading? Support high-quality local journalism and help underwrite independent news without the spin.

From a policy standpoint, this is exactly the right move because the RTA exists solely to spend money on roads and that cash can't be cannibalized for anything else. So I would like to see all road repair from every jurisdiction go through that county-wide board.

Politically, it's a tougher sell.

On the surface, this looks bad because the conservative Legislature holds lib-tilting Pima County in general contempt and territory south of the Gila River in specific contempt.

The business community, though, is plenty supportive of the Legislature’s conservative agenda and wants roads here fixed. They can work some will on lawmakers and damned near got the authority approved last year, Huckelberry said.

“It got through both houses,” Huckelberry said. “ It was then held over in the House. It suffered trade bait right at the 11th hour.” The provision was dropped in return for picking up something else some key lawmaker wanted.

So it’s up to the business community again, Huckelberry said. Improved traffic flow improves productivity and craters pocking arterial streets tend to turn off site selectors, Huckelberry said.

I can hear gears spinning. Aren’t sales taxes too high as it is? Don’t they hit lower income people hardest? Yes to both. Tucson’s sales tax already ranks in the top 25 in the nation and not in a good way. But these are the only taxes the Legislature can sort of stomach. They are, what economists call, neutral taxes. That’s a fancy way of saying “they don’t affect decision-making.” Businesses are less affected by those and they hit the poor hardest.

Then there’s the next question: Wait. Voters keep rejecting these taxes. Why would they say “no” to the county but yes to the RTA? That requires a leap of faith from a supposition that we know why the bonds failed.

What went wrong again

For one reason or another, voters just don’t like Pima County government right now.

Every local government gets its time under the voters’ heel, and that’s suddenly Pima County’s turn. The RTA itself came about because the city of Tucson couldn’t get a road bond approved. So city leaders threw up their hands and went to the county for help. Huckelberry came up with the RTA, helped organize an election and got the job done when that dysfunctional city government couldn’t cross a street without proposing a sky bridge.

TucsonSentinel.com relies on contributions from our readers to support our reporting on Tucson's civic affairs. Donate to TucsonSentinel.com today!
If you're already supporting us, please encourage your friends, neighbors, colleagues and customers to help support quality local independent journalism.

Well, today’s anti-establishment suspicions chirp across social media that if the county is running smoothly, the fix must be in somewhere. Why else would we not be able to see the dysfunction?

I posed this idea to Huckelberry, who responded like he’d heard it a few hundred times before: “If everything is run well than there’s something wrong somewhere.”

The city of Tucson is now free and clear from overwhelming voter spite. It’s on a roll at the polls, having won voter approval for street repair, public safety capital, a zoo expansion, a road bond and now a parks bond.

Credit City Manager Mike Ortega for stabilizing what had been a troubled institution.

For my money, the structure of local government creates some perception problems. If Huckelberry had done what he has done as an elected mayor or “county judge” (as they call them in Texas), he’d be Southern Arizona’s Fiorello LaGuardia.

However, Arizona governments were established to have quiet, professional non-political bean counters running them. Today we call them “beureau-cRATS.”

The better and longer they do their job, the more they are seen as out-of-control bureaucrats rather than strong local leaders. When they struggle, the whole government can seem to burst at the seems in plain view of a horrified public.

So check to damned if you do and “aye” to damned if you don’t.

A force like Huckelberry develops a deal to help launch something as exotic as a balloon spaceport and, now, well, everything is going to shit.

“Balloon boy wants more money for roads? How corrupt is that?”

And no, the money isn't just there already. Wastewater money can't be spent on roads any more than library district money. The county sheriff and county attorney aren't going to turn over their budgets to road repair. The general fund just isn't big enough.

What's more, bonding on long-term investments lets the county pay for today's fixes with tomorrow's dollars. It saves the taxpayer money in the long run.

Asphalt vs. the Trump Show

Fighting these perceptions proved virtually impossible for the the Fall of 2018, when he had to compete with the tumult of an election season clogged with caravans, Russians and Obamacare. County streets were just a chronic pre-existing condition lost in the acuteness of rank national partisanship.

The county could not, itself, mount a “yes,” campaign. All it could do is hope that a “friends of the road bond” committee could do that job for it. No way in heaven or in Yuma could that campaign break through the kajillion dollar ad buys of a midterm election.

So hold the election on a date when the bond and only the bond is on the ballot, right? Well, that’s tricky too. In 2004, the county won sweeping approval for an open space bond during a May election because the a whole bunch of the local community had been brought into the process and turned out to vote yes.

A road bond isn’t like that. It’s based on civil engineering, average daily vehicle trips and developed by street geeks who expertly prioritize. It ain’t sexy. The good news is there’s little politics involved. The bad news is there’s little politics involved.

So stand-alone elections face the risk of tax-a-phobes turning out in big numbers animated by their agitation. The bond tanks without a natural “yes” crowd to lead the way to victory.

Support TucsonSentinel.com today, because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

Belts and burners

Finally, in the postmortem department, you gotta look at how long Tucson took to climb out of the Great Recession. Things are looking up now. The tax base is growing by 4 percent per year and good economic news may be coming, Huckelberry said. During the last decade, capital needs built up but voters were in no mood for spending money they barely had.

Imagine doing no work on you car or home for seven years. The bakres would be squealing, the belts would be squeaking, the roof would be leaking, the driveway would be cracking and maybe the stove is down to two working burners. All of a sudden there’s a big bill that hits all at once.

And no, Huckelberry has no intention of leaving before his contract is up in two years unless the Board of Supervisors dispatches him to life on a Mexican beach. He’ll be fine either way.

Tucson, on the other hand, needs Phoenix’s help.

It may seem problematic but maybe it’s as simple as Jim Click picking up the phone, dialing Gov. Doug Ducey and saying “dude.” It may not be.

So, think happy thoughts for the good of Pima County’s vehicular suspension systems and send your good vibes Phoenix’s way.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is a former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.

- 30 -
have your say   


There are no comments on this report. Sorry, comments are closed.

Sorry, we missed your input...

You must be logged in or register to comment

Read all of TucsonSentinel.com's
coronavirus reporting here »