Fellow travelers: Tucson Council to discuss new amity with RTA; Cat Foot looks at booting kindergarteners

Tucson’s participation in the RTA Next plan appears to have overcome a major obstacle, as a committee of professional traffic geeks and weirdos has approved full funding of the city’s priorities in a proposal that may be brought to voters in 2025.

The Regional Transportation Authority’s Technical Management Committee (a.k.a, traffic engineers, aka geeks and weirdos, God love ’em) has approved all of Tucson’s priorities by simply taking projects left off one list and adding them to another.

The category of Roadway Corridors presents an enumeration of work to be done along the city’s major roadways. The original list left off a lot but the technical committee has simply copied and pasted that list into a second category best described as “safety.”

So Tucson’s $258 million project list looks like it’s got an honest shot.

About that catch….

The plan is to fund Sun Tran’s existing program first, then the Council’s priority of bus rapid transit — and that means the expanded bus service won’t be funded among the listed projects.

I think that’s fine because the projections look to be wildly pessimistic. The RTA board is anticipating less than $2.1 billion in revenue off a half-cent sales tax over 20 years. That’s almost exactly the number predicted in 2006 to fund the current RTA. It fell short because there was a mighty recession that befell Tucson a year after the tax began. I’m not talking in today’s dollars. That’s just dollar dollars.

This isn’t just me WAGing the revenue underestimation. City Manager Mike Ortega has said as much, as well.

Inflation alone should mean better revenues than that even if another 2008-size crash happens. So long as the country doesn’t do anything stupid like deport 13 million workers and sacrifice property rights on the altar of dictatorship, RTA Next’s revenues will almost certainly experience a hefty surplus, leaving additional money on the table.

On the other hand, the Tucson Council is set to approve the final phases of the Grant Road widening as part of the current 2006 RTA plan and it is $12 million over budget.

In fact the total project’s cost will max out at $184 million. The construction phase includes $93.9 million from the RTA’s half-cent sales tax (including an extra $12.6 million not originally budgeted) and another $64 million from federal gas tax money, administered by the state. Finally, $6 million is from the city itself.

That $184 million is a maximum figure allowed without another vote. Considering the next phase of widening to begin at North Mountain Road isn’t anywhere near set to get underway, the work might still be a while and the final project cost could increase further. 

So one project is eating up 5 percent of the cost because prices can escalate.

The Grant Road portion was a major sticking point when the plan was approved by voters 18 years ago. Businesses and neighborhood groups opposed the RTA because a new and improved Grant would eat up storefronts. The displacement of local staple Bobo’s Restaurant alone caused a major uproar.

The widening project was shoved to the back of the line because Tucson’s first priority was the Downtown streetcar line. That went first. A bunch of Tucson road projects went last.

Then the money started to run out because the recession kneecapped projected revenues.

So, yes, costs can increase, revenues can dry up and the RTA can assume it’s wise to play it safe. And they can severely underestimate revenues at the same time. Two realities in opposition can be true at the same time.

The City Council is also being asked to approve a plan to plan on building a rapid transit (fast bus) corridor connecting Tohono T’adai Transit Center at the Tucson Mall down to Tucson International Airport. 

Recounts and false alarms

Council members will discuss during closed-door “executive session” with their lawyers how to respond to state Attorney General’s Office ruling that their voter-approved raise is not subject to a recount.

So City Attorney Mike Rankin was correct when he said as much after the November election. Prop. 413 passed by a few hundred votes, well within the margin triggering a recall for all elections except municipal referendums and initiatives.

This makes no practical sense. Why would lawmakers leave one category of elections out of the recount rules? On the other hand,  it makes perfect legal sense in Arizona where the Legislature has long failed to write a coherent set of laws. 

The bottom line is that the Council really doesn’t have to do anything. No recount is necessary — they can just move on, pocket the 300-percent raise and thank voters for tying their salaries to county supervisors’ pay.

If anyone says anything, hey, the AG’s Office touched it last.

That was the whole point of kicking the issue to Phoenix. The Council didn’t look like they were the ones short-circuiting a recount over their raises on a technicality. Council members can just say they followed the advice of the AG on the issue, should anyone ask.

Opposition hasn’t exactly reared up in any sort of organized way. The Pima County Republican Party apparently would only care if Prop. 413 came with the promise of a free drag queen story hour for one lucky school each year. So the all-Democratic Council has moved from the 12 percent tax bracket to the 22 percent tax bracket.

The Council will also get a rundown of proposed changes to the city’s website mapping urban stress. 

Stress is defined as percent of people in a given Census tract without a college degree, the percent who are people of color, low income and renters. 

Ummm. I get what they are doing here but the map does have a certain “there-goes-the-neighborhood” quality to it when detailing urban stress. It sort of suggests (in a backwards way) the smart thing is to not live around renters or people of color. So tell them to skiddadle or keep out.

I know that’s not where the city staff is going here but maybe look for some other ways to define what kills a neighborhood.

The Council will also get another update on homelessness and what is being done about it.

Building more homes?

Well, aside from that, the big new thing is that Tucson police are being used less and less on the homelessness issue, as resources are targeted only to camps that present a threat of violence either among the people in them or to the general public.

The goal is to reach out to people without homes to offer drug treatment as necessary and clean up camps that do present a threat.

One issue is that people in homes are over-stating the threats these camps pose to get faster response by city workers.

Councilmember Steve Kozachik has asked Tucson Police Chief Chad Kasmar to give a rundown of changes to how the crime of sex trafficking is approached in Tucson.

Basically, it’s working with a detective investigating Internet crimes against children and the unit dealing with missing persons and runaways.

They are supposed to act as force multipliers.

TPD staffing has increased from a part-time detective working on sex trafficking to two fulltime employees and the online crimes detective working part-time on these investigations.

Police are also asking for the City Council to approve a state grant to buy a new gas chromeograph and mass spectrometer to test for fentanyl. They have both now but they are 10 years old and need to be replaced.

Finally, City Clerk Suzanne Mesich is up for reappointment and the Council will vote on a deal to keep her around for the cool price of $164,965 a year. I’ve long been a big fan of Mesich, as she’s always been helpful to me explaining whatever I need to know about to keep the public informed. 

No laws were broken

It’s once again time for the Pima County Board of Supervisors to lament not having a sales tax.

The board will get a rundown of the budget picture and general fund revenues are expected to exceed projections by a paltry $1 million on $603 million budgeted. The economy is kind of booming, but the county is stuck capitalizing on property taxes. 

Property values remain far more stagnant year to year and so do the tax revenues pinned to them.

That stability makes it easy to predict revenues but windfalls don’t happen during good times. Even Nogales’s coffers are flush right now and that’s with all that border chaos. Sales tax revenues can provide absolute windfalls during good times and Pima County is the only one in the state without that funding source (and no the county RTA tax doesn’t count because it can only go to one thing).

The upside is that property tax revenues don’t collapse like sales tax funds during downturns. 

The county will also have to increase its reserve by about $10 million to remain consistent with board policy of carrying a 17 percent reserve based on the previous fiscal year. The county actually spent $59 million more than anticipated in the final quarter of fiscal year 2023.

If the county could cash in on exploding sales tax revenues, this would be a lot easier, but alas, that would take a unanimous vote on the board. Republican Steve Christy would be pilloried by his voters if he went along with it, even if he wanted a sales tax. He doesn’t. So it’s not going to happen.

Aside from that, the county Supes are largely doing small-ball procedural stuff during their meeting Tuesday.

During an executive session, the board will discuss with their attorneys “communication with the federal government.” This seems to be code for an investigation into whether former County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had a pension deal that violated federal law.

I know how the feds got nosey. The county gets federal grants, so federal laws apply to the administration of the county. This is how the University of Arizona basketball team got whacked for federal crimes involving recruiting. I’m just not sure what the federal crime would be. Then again, neither do the feds. So the matter seems closed, as the Sentinel exclusively reported last week.

No laws were broken.

Supervisor Matt Heinz is commandeering part of the meeting, as is his right, to push a few issues he wants discussed.

The first is giving current County Administrator Jan Lesher a raise based on market forces. He provides no indication that Lesher wants a raise and looks like he’s spearheading things himself.

He’s also again asking the county to spend an extra $60,000 on outside agencies to provide county assistance to people in need. Heinz has been concerned about the lingering effects of coronavirus on vulnerable communities. That’s noble.

Finally, he wants the full board to discuss the direction of the RTA Next plan.

This is in the wake of the same meeting of pointy-headed smart people, in which the city got the extra money for their projects.

The Tucson Council has been getting monthly updates on the state of the RTA Next plan. The county board hasn’t been following the matter nearly as closely.

Supervisor Rex Scott, who is the county representative on the RTA board, has been working to smooth things out between the city and other jurisdictions who run the process. That’s been the county’s role. It hasn’t been fretting the issue nearly as much as the city.

The Sahuarita Town Council will get a look at a couple of proposals to expand electric vehicle charging stations in town and to clean up recreational vehicle rules.

Representatives from Tulsa, Okla.-based Francis Energy will present a case for making Sahuarita friendly to EV charging stations.

Francis Energy is in what business? EV charging stations.

The town staff is suggesting the council make changes to the town’s RV rules.

Currently, it’s legal to park a container truck in a residential driveway but not an RV when an aunt and uncle visit from days on the road. RV’s must be screened off and not visible from the road. The town’s code doesn’t cover the eventuality of friends or relatives staying in RVs while visiting.

Also, parking under a ramada is considered a legal screening of the RV even though it doesn’t conceal it from view.

The staff wants to make the rules make sense in the real world.

They’re adults now?

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board will vote on a policy that allows easier suspensions and expulsions of students from kindergarten to 4th grade.

A new state law streamlines the suspension process if the student is only out of school for two days, and has not exceeded a combined 10 days of suspension during a school year.

A child could be expelled if they bring a firearm to school.

My question: Why the hell are we expelling kindergartners?

There’s this thing in the brain called the prefrontal cortex and it controls rational decision making relating to right and wrong. The prefrontal cortex isn’t fully developed until someone is about 25 and it’s barely a rumor at age 5.

I’m guessing there are ways short of expulsion to deal with unruly post-toddling ankle-biters.

The Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board will vote on whether to pick up an $18,000 tab to send a half-dozen teachers to Dallas for professional development.

Title I funds would pay for it. This is federal grant money doled out to students with a high number of students from low-income families.

Over at Flowing Wells, the governing board will vote on whether to remain in a study on the effectiveness of the Cooper Center for Environmental Education.

Fourth graders at Richardson Elementary School (Go, Roadrunners) are taking part in the University of Arizona program to foster students’ appreciation for the environment.

Shows about nothing

Maybe it’s the post-holiday doldrums but a number of school districts are just meeting to do routine business required by law. They’re approving coaching stipends, accepting gifts and donations, approving requests for leaves of absence and paying bills to keep the lights on and paychecks coming.

The Sahuarita Unified School District Governing Board has no new business relating to the governing board, instruction, personnel or business.

Down in Vail, the school board will vote on whether to hire a new coordinator to run the Community Programs for pre-kindergartners before and after regular school hours. The argument goes, if someone’s in charge then things will run more smoothly.

And the Tucson Unified School District will hold an executive session meeting with their attorneys to discuss what is is covered by public records and potentially take action against a student or students (such as proceeding with an expulsion). Again, the public is kept out of these meetings.