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Opinion

The Tucson agenda

Pima Supes take up tax scheme, indoor COVID masks; Council looks at housing costs

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

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will take up a poor attempt at a stealth tax increase, paid family leave for government workers, and an almost certainly doomed mask mandate at their 9 a.m. virtual meeting on Tuesday.

Democratic Supervisor Matt Heinz is asking the board to accelerate a program that’s always bugged me. The PAYGO (pay as you go) capital improvement plan, paid out of the county general fund, is basically a backdoor reverse-jam bond election without the fuss of asking the voters.

This is more of a really bad idea.

Changing the 60/60 "paygo" into 80/80 paygo sounds like bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Because it is. It is, in fact, a permanent and basically automatic increase to what is supposed to be a temporary property tax hike voters agreed to for the sole purpose of paying for bond program.

The county collects two kinds of property taxes. The first is a primary property tax that pays for daily operations of the county and the programs it provides. These revenues are spent at the discretion of the board on whatever a majority thinks is worthwhile.

The second is a secondary property tax. Voters agree to these taxes through a bond election, to pay off finance major capital improvements that don’t fit nicely into the county budget. 

An electric bill is a daily operating expense. That's the primary property tax. A new refrigerator is capital. Think secondary tax.

In 2015 and 2018, Pima County voters rejected bonds for capital expenses. That didn’t stop erosion, wear and tear, so the county has to come up with new ways to pay for the government equivalent of a busted refrigerator.

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So the board started looking for ways to find money for capital projects.

The first “60” in “60/60” is fine. Rising property values — like we have now — mean rising property tax revenues even if rates stay the same, and the county policy now takes 60 percent of that increase to spend on “refrigerators.” Heinz wants to make it 80.

The second “60” is a problem.

Suppose you take out a second mortgage on your house to send your kid to college. That means you pay $500 monthly for 10 years on that debt, like you'd expect. But when the 10 years is up, you find out that your bank no longer charges you for your second mortgage but increases the cost of your first mortgage by $300 every month.

That wasn’t part of the deal. So you call the bank with your basic “WTF?” The bank’s response is “Pffft. You can clearly afford it.”

Here’s the question. Will you ever take out another second mortgage again?

Probably not.

Voters have in the past approved new county bonds, which are now being paid off, which brings down the secondary property tax. The county is raising the primary rate equal to 60 percent of the drop in secondary taxes to recapture revenues lost by the falling secondary rate.

Heinz wants to increase this to 80 percent.

My problem isn't with Heinz's request, it's with the whole scheme of tying the primary rate and general fund to bond taxes. It's a 2019 policy that predates Heinz's arrival on the board.

Voters only agreed to the secondary tax rate for a specific and limited program, like the 2004 Open Space bond. Now, money voters approved to protect the desert from growth is being cannibalized to accommodate growth with road and wastewater improvements.

Maybe the vote would have been different in 2004 if voters knew that this would happen. Don't change the terms of a debt after the fact.

The board has complete discretion over how primary tax dollars are used. So today it’s much-needed capital projects getting the love. Tomorrow it could be hippie-dippy social programs or knuckle-dragging police initiatives that crack down on whatever has the East Side and Oro Valley in a huff.

More money is needed

The county isn’t spending this money on cocaine and strippers.

Infrastructure needs identified by the county total 413 projects that would cost $2.9 billion to address. Of that, $1.7 billion falls under the categories of transportation and wastewater reclamation. There ain’t nothing sexy about roads or sewers unless you are a civil engineer.

About 40 percent of those projects the county can’t even get to touching. So Heinz wants to accelerate the tax collections to reach by 2025 the $50 million that County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has set as a target for a capital improvement budget.

The county has real needs for real services the people require, but don’t want to pay for. Voters can be annoying that way. It’s not beyond the pale for them to think: “Why would I vote for a road bond when the county let the streets get this bad?”

That’s just how democracy works. And if you are going to have neutral application of the law, the agents of the law must report to everybody equally. That’s the theory, anyway.

Road maintenance is absolutely vital but there's a wrong way to pay for it.

Keep 'em separated

So I just say never let the secondary property tax have anything to do with the general fund.

It’s more than just semantics. It is no longer true to tell voters ahead of a bond election that they are being asked to support only a specific program with a temporary tax increase.

Now reporters must point out that voting “yes” on a bond means after the bond is paid off, the county policy is to keep 60 percent of the tax revenue to spend on whatever animates a future majority of the supervisors.

Tying the tax increase to the bond is dangerous because it will make it harder to pass them in the future. I know the county prefers bonds to pay-as-you-go because the county only went to “paygo” after voters rejected bond proposals in 2015 and 2019.

The solution is to treat the primary tax rate like it’s separate and completely distinct from the secondary tax. Raise it based on the merits of the need and don’t even bring up the secondary tax.

Out at home

I'm going to break some journalistic organizational protocols and go straight into the City Council agenda and then come back to the county.

The Tucson City Council will vote this week on whether to approve the proposed a draft affordable housing plan for the community.

So, y’know. Problem solved.

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The draft plan includes some interesting information that explains a lot of what’s been happening (full disclosure: This reporter shares an address with someone who saw their rent increase 30 percent this year).

Check it out: Just 2.5 percent of the city’s housing stock was built in the last decade; 12.2 percent was built during the 2000s; 13.3 percent was built during the 1990s; 16.4 percent was erected during the 1980s; and 21.6 percent got constructed during the 1970s. There are fewer homes built during the 00s than were built prior to 1939. There was nothing east of Country Club Road in the 1930s.

So we have a slowdown in stock.

Incomes have increased 4 percent since 2019 while rents have gone up by 24.6 percent.

Of the 210,000 or so households in Tucson, about 93,000 are considered low-income (earning 80 percent or less than the Pima County median income).

Affordability is defined as a household paying 30 percent of its income to housing. Anything above that and other parts of the budget take a big hit. 

A family of three earning 80 percent of the AMI could afford $900 a month in rent. The median rent price is $1,300.

Doesn’t seem unreasonable until you realize incomes are up 4 percent since 2019 and rents are up 30 percent in Pima County. Rents rose 9.2 percent in between 2017 and 2019. The curve is steepening.

This is a much bigger problem than rising pork prices. Consumers can shop around or get digital deals for groceries. They can go without bacon for an atrocious amount of time. Renters can’t just fail to give the landlord a check.

So landlords have basically decided to take a giant slice of the Tucson area's collective paycheck. This means there is less money for every other business in Tucson. Grocery stores, clothing outlets, restaurants, hardware stores, insurance companies and even the banks will suffer right alongside renters because property owners have forgotten they are not feudal dukes.

I blame the state’s Landlord Tenant Act for part of this. It is so stacked to the side of the landlords, that tenants can be evicted at warp speed and then find it nearly impossible to rent another place with an eviction on their record.

That’s a loaded gun to the head of a customer no other business enjoys. There aren’t much in the way of deflationary pressures on rent.

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This is simple. The community needs more inventory ASAP. Rising rents should be a signal to the market to build more, but the jury is still out on whether the “free market” works as advertised.

A family thing

Here's some good news. 

Acting Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher is recommending the supervisors approve six weeks of paid parental leave for county employees at 100 percent their salary.

In her written recommendation, Lesher pointed out that private employers tend to be more generous with parental leave than the county’s existing program of six weeks at two-thirds of salary.

And if that’s not enough, the city of Tucson offers six weeks of leave at 100 percent pay, and there ain’t no way the county is going to be one-upped by the city on this issue.

The recommendation is to set aside $250,000 to cover the potential increase.

Southern Arizona sometimes acts as if the way to fix lousy salaries with lackluster benefits is to make sure everyone else's is worse. That fixes nothing.

Odds and ends

The supervisors have put some beefy ephemera on the agenda ranging from "land acknowledgment" to legal advice provided to supervisors but protected by attorney-client privilege and the rules of executive session, where such advice is confidentially offered and discussed.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva is asking the board to take up the idea of performing a “land acknowledgment” at the start of every board meeting to honor our local indigenous tribes.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that will set some folks hair on fire these days because land acknowledgments are something other than celebrating white hegemony and chanting: "USA! USA!”

Interestingly, these are some of the same people who see no value in immigration.

A land acknowledgment is not an acknowledgment that everyone who lives on what were native lands are murderous thieves. However, some advocates for indigenous rights see it as something of half a loaf, if acknowledgments aren’t followed up by deeds to improve conditions among tribal communities.

They do have plans for what comes next. See: Landback movement.

No one is suggesting that 1 million residents up and leave Pima County – that will happen after climate change makes the region uninhabitable (he says only kind of joking).

I mean, there’s not a lot of cost here to respect the people who came here first. These communities could use some help, attention and more sovereignty. I just hope there isn’t a some reflexive over-reaction from the sort of people who think mask mandates are worse atrocities than slavery, Jim Crow and red-lining.

There’s a pretty good discussion of it here conducted in coordination with Chicago’s Field Museum. 

Supervisor Sharon Bronson wants a discussion on returning to in-person meetings of the board. That’s a bit of a mixed signal for the chair to send, as the county is in the process of firing people who didn’t get their coronavirus vaccines.

On the other hand, the Pima County Board of Supervisors won’t be the first band of elected officials to resume holding their proceedings live and in person in the Tucson area.

Supervisor Rex Scott, a Democrat representing the Catalina Foothills and Oro Valley, is asking that the supervisors release to the public a legal opinion from the Pima County Attorney’s Office concerning county referendums. An effort is underway to put a minimum wage measure on a county-wide ballot and apparently, the board’s lawyers have something to say about it that Scott wants the rest of us to know.

Heinz also has a plan I feel like I should at least mention: another motion to mandate wearing masks indoors in public places in Pima County.

He’s tried this before and it’s gone nowhere. Supervisors can put whatever they want on the agenda.

Heinz is a doctor who must be losing his “stuff” over the political indifference that is rising concerning the ongoing fight against COVID-19. I’m with him but what are you going to do? We live among Americans who would have said a year before the Normandy landing “I’m so done with gas rationing and victory gardens. Pearl Harbor was two years ago.”


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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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Pima County Supervisor Matt Heinz is pushing to expand a property tax scheme that predates his election to the board.

The Tucson agenda

Public meetings this week:

Pima County Board of Supervisors

Tuesday, 9 a.m.: Regular meeting

Tucson City Council

Tuesday, 3 p.m.: Study session

Tuesday, 5:30 p.m.: Regular meeting (plus regular special meeting as the Public Housing Authority Board of Commissioners)

Marana Town Council

Tuesday, 6 p.m.: Regular meeting canceled (as is the Jan. 4. meeting)

South Tucson City Council

Tuesday, 6 p.m.: Regular meeting canceled (next meeting Jan. 4)

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