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Tucson, Pima County to vote on backing $1.1B battery plant

The Tucson agenda

Tucson, Pima County to vote on backing $1.1B battery plant

American Battery Factory could bring 1,000 jobs averaging $65k/year, but might remind some of World View deal - plus more in local gov't meetings

  • Rendering of an American Battery Factory pop-up operation. The Utah start-up business wants to build a plant in Tucson and is set to receive local incentives.
    American Battery Factory, Inc.Rendering of an American Battery Factory pop-up operation. The Utah start-up business wants to build a plant in Tucson and is set to receive local incentives.

This time it's called "Project Flag."

That's the code name for an economic initiative being undertaken by local governments to land a $1.1 billion American Battery Factory plant in Tucson that may employ up to 1,000 area residents. The average pay is reported to be (passive voice intended) $65,000.

The plan is for the Pima County Board of Supervisors to approve a lease-purchase agreement with the Utah company seeking to put a lithium ion phosphate battery plant on a 267-acre parcel near Tucson International Airport. 

The terms of the lease would give American Battery Factory an opportunity to buy the land for $20 million if and only if they actually hire 1,000 workers at the advertised wage.

Meanwhile, the Tucson City Council will consider this week providing an incentive package designed for companies that hire 25 workers at certain salary levels. The Primary Jobs Incentive Program would apply up to $4 million construction sales tax dollars to the projects application fees.

On the surface, the battery deal seems a lot more solid than the idea of shooting space balloons into the air that don't quite reach space. That plan was called "Project Curvature" and it sort of...  well, take a balloon and blow it up and let the air out of the squeezed-down opening. Then listen to the sound. That's pretty much how well the World View deal has worked out for the county.

That company now swears up they are on course to start space tourism next year with flights being launched worldwide but that part of the business will no longer operate in Tucson. So much for the planned tourism boost.

The company will still send up high-altitude balloons for commercial uses out of Tucson.

Color me skeptical. So far the biggest bang Tucson has received was when a balloon on launch pad, built with taxpayer money by the county, exploded in 2017.

At least there were pyrotechnics.

Speaking of which, American Battery is not using the same volatile materials that can lead to fires and explosions with lithium-ion batteries. So explosions and fires are less likely.

County Administrator Jan Lesher says the deal conforms with state laws and Arizona's constitutional ban on gifts to private companies. 

World View, meanwhile, is more than a bit hung up after a state Appeals Court ruled the county's incentive package to the company violated that gift clause. The county provided a lease-to-own agreement for World View, too. It also built the headquarters and launchpad.

The Goldwater Institute sued over the project, alleging a whole litany of wrongs, and looks to be winning now after several court losses over other parts of the deal.

And on the World View deal, the unanimous three-judge panel ruling against the county, found that the county was getting back less value than it gave up. The same could be said about the American Battery Deal because the county land is appraised at $23 million but the purchase agreement is for $78,000 per acre. 

Well, my trusty calculator says that price for 267 acres equals $20.9 million. Now an economic impact analysis done on the factory says it will contribute $496 million between 2025 and 2029.

American Battery wouldn't want the county to build them anything, anyway. The company touts its own nifty pop-up factories that can be ready to go in a couple weeks.

On the other other hand, this is a start-up company so who knows how long it will take for the firm's brass to say "we know what we did wrong."

Let's give this a chance, and see how it goes.

Constables, horses and jails

The board of supervisors still has constabulary issues as the two applicants applying for Precinct 1 constable failed to meet the minimum standards set by law for the post. Neither live in the precinct they would serve.

So efforts to replace John Dorer, who resigned in October, are going nowhere.

A plan on the board 's Tuesday agenda would establish a new "deputy constable" to assist the elected official filling the post of actual constable. The deputy position would pay $55,000 to start.

Constables said they can use some help and it looks like the supervisors are going to give it to them.

Constables are elected officials who serve court documents such as eviction notices.

The Rillito Racing Commission is asking the county approve four more racing days in addition to the 14 scheduled for 2023. The races would be run Feb. 4 and Feb. 5 as well as April 1 and April 2.

Proceeds from the galloping at the county-owned Rillito Racetrack pay for the commission's operations.

Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos will address the board about the challenges involved in running the Pima County Jail. Chief among them is how the inmate population has increased by 45 percent at the Adult Detention Center since the height of the coronavirus outbreak. Corrections officer staffing has fallen by 30 percent during the same time.

Nanos will provide recommendations to the board during the meeting.

Supervisor Matt Heinz is asking the board to launch an investigation into open-meeting-law violations committed by members of the Pima Community College Governing Board.

It's an involved soap opera happening over on North Arcadia Avenue at the college HQ. 

In this case, apparently someone disclosed some legal advice the board got during executive session.

I somehow doubt the county is going to want to get too deep into it another elected government's dysfunction.

They need homes

The Tucson City Council will get an update on how the staff is dealing with the homelessness problem.

A couple interesting findings the city has discovered as workers cataloged and inventoried homeless sites around town. The city surveyed 198 in November and 146 posed no threat to health or safety. When dealing with the homeless population, about 85 percent of contacts required no police presence.

That's a bit of a departure from the anti-homeless propaganda some are spreading. Homelessness is bad, don't get me wrong. But we don't force the evicted to commit ritual suicide so they are going to continue to process life functions because they're homo sapiens.

They need a way back into shelter, which isn't easy in the private sector. Through the first 11 months of 2022, Tucson social workers have managed to put just 225 people without homes into housing.

The Council will also look at redistricting of the city's six council wards. Redistricting in Tucson's case isn't that interesting because general elections are held citywide. It's not like supervisorial districts, where boundaries can be drawn to isolate one party in favor of another.

Only city primary elections are held ward-by-ward.

Council composition isn't any more or less likely to change as a result of redistricting. 

Expect some turf battles as the ward maps get changed at the edges but a citizens redistricting committee's recommendations aren't proposing major changes.

The big issue with redistricting this year was the delay in getting started. The public process didn't start until the fall – that's months later than it should have begun.

The Council will also discuss the city's future in the Regional Transportation Authority, which is gearing up for another election to extend a sales tax to pay for major projects.

The Council will discuss two presentations the staff will deliver.

The first is the same-old, same-old update on the rising and falling priorities with price tags twice the size of the RTA's proposed budget going forward.

The city of Tucson still has $533 million in projects the RTA is prioritizing in the $2.3 billion project.

The second is potentially more problematic to my way of thinking. $1.45 billion of the total price tag is now slated for new work for thoroughfares. Meanwhile, 110 million will be spent for "environmental" purposes.

Given the imminent realities of climate change, that's an alarming mix. However, the suburban jurisdictions carry a lot of weight and those Republican-heavy parts of town could be triggered by too much climate talk.

I get it. But the problem isn't going to go away because it gives one party angina.

Councilmember Lane Santa Cruz wants to revamp the way changes are requested on previously-approved rezoning projects.

Currently, the city's development code requires developers wanting major changes in density or major design alterations go back to the City Council for approval.

Santa Cruz wants developers to go back and get public input and hold a hearing before the zoning examiner before the council decides.

No one has a property right to rezoning. The zoning is baked into the price landowners pay for property. Asking for a denser zoning designation is a real money maker because if the request is granted, the land becomes instantly more valuable.

So if they convince the council to approve a rezoning dependent on a list of promises, then they should stick to those promises.

Meanwhile, Councilmember Kevin Dahl wants to look at the city's towing ordinance. 

Working tacitly on the city's behalf, A & B Towing has been accused of seeking out cars parked on private property to tow and then charge vehicle owners $250 to get it out of an impound lot.

This is apparently even true if the parking lot lacks a warning against parking.

Council members will also get a rundown on how about 2,700 Reid Park regulars helped mold it's new master plan. Barnum Hill is still there. Repeat: Barnum Hill is still there. 

And finally, the Council is expected to pick a new vice mayor. There is not a less important job in Arizona politics than vice mayor.

OK, if the zombies take over and Mayor Regina Romero goes missing, the vice mayor can issue some proclamations that Vail will ignore.

Technically, I guess it's Councilmember Steve Kozachik's turn. He hasn't had the job since 2016. Maybe that's on purpose.

Hey, Mr. City Attorney Man

The South Tucson City Council will discuss the appointment of a city attorney and city manager.

That's all the information the city is posting about either on the agenda. 

Here's an idea: Give the public a little more insight. The council is providing the voting public with little more than "we're going to do some stuff about this guy over here and that woman over there."

Up in Marana, the Town Council this week will vote on a plan to give the Gladden Farms Baseball Park new lighting at a cost of $1.2 million. About half the money will come from impact fees assessed for parks on Gladden Farms construction. The rest of the money would come from an improvement district formed by the development of the Twin Peaks subdivision. That fund would still have $16.7 million in it.

The council will also consider reducing by $25 the fees for festival vendors who don't sell food. The change would b retroactive for the 2022 Fall Festival and for the upcoming Holiday Festival. 

Right now, the fee is $150 to set up a booth at the town's events but the new plan would reduce the fee to $125 for both events.

Meanwhile, Oro Valley has to figure out what to do with $5.4 million in American Rescue Plan money the council decided not to spend in September on water infrastructure.

The federal coronavirus relief funds can be spent on only premium pay, public health related to coronavirus or infrastructure improvements on water, sewer or broadband.

The city has until 2026 to spend the money and it must figure out what to spend it on by Dec. 31, 2024. There's not a ton of rush. However, the town staff is bring it back to the council to try to force a decision.

It's got a bunch of ideas, ranging from golf course improvements, to tourism projects.

International relations

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will commemorate the 200th anniversary of U.S.-Mexico relations.

I didn't know such an anniversary exists.

Silly me. On Dec. 12, 1822 José Manuel Zozaya y Bermúdez presented his credentials as minster to President James Monroe.

The supervisors will also vote again to accept a $300,000 state parks grant to repair the 1904 dome roof of the county courthouse.

Santa Cruz County Recorder Suzanne Sainz will announced her retirement Friday and now the board will brainstorm a process to hire her replacement, who would fill out the term ending in 2024.

Hope it goes better for them then the process of finding a constable has gone for Pima County.

Counseling required

The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board will vote on whether to name the entry of Sam Hughes Elementary School after the late Ann-Eve Pedersen.

Cool. I'm all for it. I knew Ann-Eve as a mentor and friend. 

I would just point out that while the nominating letter from Sam Hughes Principal Kathryn Bolasky accurately says Pedersen was a city editor of the Arizona Daily Star, she was later the assistant managing editor for news at the Tucson Citizen — the newsroom in which she began and ended her professional journalism career.

More aptly in this instance, Pedersen was one of the key leaders of Arizona efforts to improve education and get teachers and schools more money. 

The district also has 18 school counselor vacancies. 

This is what the district says about that: 

Having a school counselor vacancy at a school site places a hardship on the site to adequately support the social emotional, behavioral, and academic needs of students. In 2020, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national youth mental health emergency in the United States, an integral support to the wellbeing of students at school is a certified school counselor or other certified youth mental health provider to ensure the needs of students are being met.

So the goal is to use 6.5 contracted social workers to fill in for the rest of the 2022-23 school year. The expected charge is a whopping $60 an hour as a contracted rate and cost the district $322,000.

If they are so vital to the support of kids in schools, then is it a great idea to have them constantly swapped out? 

On the other hand, the longer the solution is paying counselors $60 per hour on an emergency basis, the sooner paying them $40 regularly might seem like a deal.

And the district will adopt a mission, vision and values statement that puts students at the center of decisions with a caring, diverse, collaborative and innovative atmosphere pushing for results they will be accountable for achieving.

So that's settled.

Fahrenheit: 451 comittees 

The Vail Unified School District Governing Board will vote on approval of a new list of books for high school literature.

The following is the process the district outlined to identify agreed-on books (trigger warning: It makes Tucson look hyper-efficient): A big list is suggested to English Department team leaders. Team leaders then cull that list for their principals. The principals then forward their lists to the High School Literature Review Committee (but wait, there's more). The review committee discusses each book and when consensus is reached is left on the list or discarded. The books that remain are brought to the site counsel for each high school for input from parents and the community and a final slate then goes to the governing board for approval. At that point, parents must opt in with their consent to veto each book their kid might read.

It's amazing these kids get more than "Artificial Vanilla Flavoring: The Novel" out of their scholastic literary experience.

Then the literature review committee meets twice annually to "update the list."

So what did they get? 

"A Christmas Carol "by Charles Dickens headlines a list that includes a Pulitzer-Prize winning novel "Enrique's Journey," about a Honduran migrant who comes to the U.S. illegally (it won't last a month) and a Holocaust survivor Gerda Weissman Klein's tale "All But My Life." 

There are four other books on the carefully culled list.

It's literature, kids (and parents) – not plutonium.

The new minimum wage

The Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board will vote to give certain employees pay raises as a result of mandatory increases in the state's minimum wage.

The new minimums for Amphi workers will be $14 per hour.

There's a problem, though. The district doesn't have money needed to increase wages above the minimum to create steps that provide significant raises as employees work their way up the pay scale.

This is called compression and it just means less space between higher and lower earners. 

The district would increase the minimum salaries in 10 of the district's 14 steps.

The Sahuarita and Tanque Verde school districts are doing something similar to accommodate the new minimum wage. However, they didn't provide details.

New learning in Marana

Meanwhile, the Marana Unified School District Governing Board will vote on a bunch of new courses that seem pretty cool, actually. No snark is required.

They got courses that will earn students community college credit like personal finance and introduction to politics. Spanish 102 will give students a second course to get ahead in college on their language requirement. 

Then there are classes that will move students toward graduation. Financial algebra and statistics is a course that's a great idea. I think we had one class day on this topic during health class. That was a big mistake for Xers. 

Students will also get to learn Japanese (Japanese!). Awesome. 

There's also a criminal justice course that provides a look into the country's legal system. Nice.

Knowledge isn't dangerous. The opposite is, because a smarter Tucson is a better Tucson.

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:

Pima County Supervisors

Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors

Tucson City Council

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

South Tucson City Council

Marana Town Council

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Oro Valley Town Council 

Vail Unified School District Governing Board

Tuesday, 7 p.m., regular meeting

Tanque Verde Unified School District Governing Board

Wednesday, 6 p.m. regular meeting.

Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board

Wednesday, 7 p.m., regular meeting

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