Fix is in: Uhlich set to be selected to City Council, again

Before I tell you how the selection of a new Tucson City Council member is rigged, let me at least go through the motions of pretending this is a fair fight.

The Council will vote either Monday or Tuesday to choose a replacement for Ward 6 Councilmember Steve Kozachik. He retired to take a gig with Pima County running the giant planned multi-purpose facility known as the Mosaic Quarter.

The finalists to fill his former seat are former Councilmember Karin Uhlich, former state lawmaker Pamela Powers, one time Pima County Democratic Party Chairman Vince Robago and my favorite for the job, Ted Prezelski.

What worries me about Pam Powers is that she’ll be a pain in the ass.

What I like about Powers is that she’ll be a pain in the ass.

What I’ve seen of her is that she’s not one to just go with the crowd. It’s good to have contrarian views and Kozachik often brought that to the Council discussion. Approving her would also show the Council is self-confident enough to have that kind of colleague.

Rabago? Love Rabago. He’s a good guy, a smart guy and his heart is where it should be. He’ll be ready for Council meetings and understands the issues. He just plans on running for the seat in 2025 and I don’t like the Council conferring the power of incumbency. That’s the voters’ job.

Prezelski, on the other hand, sees the job as being a placeholder. The dedicated volunteer Sentinel soccer correspondent is a fulltime staffer in Councilmember Paul Cunningham’s office and therefore is up on the issues. He also knows the players (across the city, not just on the pitch). He’s from a prominent Tucson family but he doesn’t act that way. No one is going to out-nerd Prezelski. At anything. Ever. And readers of this column know I’m mostly just pro-nerd to the point where I aspire to be among their ranks.

He goes his own way. Does his own thing and he’s a quality individual with Tucson’s best in mind. He’s not just a nice guy. He’s a kind person. There’s a difference.

Now the part about the fix being in for Uhlich. The mayor and the rest of the Council ranked their top choices among the applicants of the original field of 11. Four made Uhlich their number-one choice and just six of them will cast votes.

Well, hell.

Uhlich did this already. She served out the term of Ward 3 Councilmember Paul Durham in 2021. Now that she’s moved into Ward 6. she’s going for it again as a placeholder.

I have no beef with Karin. She’s good and knows her stuff but c’mon. Why not just put her on the payroll as ex-officio council member at-large pending appointment? Pay her a retainer, why dontcha?

In a city of 455,000, we can’t get another person with a fresh perspective? Sigh. Ex-officio Councilmember At-Large, Pending Appointment Karin Uhlich it is. She certainly knows the gig.

Although I do have to point out that the Council had a quality list to choose from. The ones who didn’t make the cut would all make fine state lawmakers if they choose to go that way.

I’m not alone in that assessment. Former Councilmember Nina Trasoff bowed out of consideration after a public forum saying basically “these guys are good. Y’all don’t need me.”

Now that councilmembers are making $76,000 per year, just like county supervisors, quality candidates are seeking the office. Funny what happens when the people don’t ask leaders to step forward and subsist on $24,000 a year.

What kind of car you drive, Tim?

Meanwhile, the Council will vote to appoint Tim Thomure as the incoming city manager and keep on Mike Rankin as the city attorney.

A couple problems here: The Council will vote in succession for a new colleague, and its top two employees. That way, neither Thomure nor Rankin will get too much scrutiny.

Thomure will start his new gig as top city dawg on July 1.

An issue has been raised within the Sentinel ranks about how these contracts lay out the base salary for top city administrators but then get sketchy about other compensation.

Thomure will get a car allowance. Fine. For a Honda Civic or BMW M5? How much are we talking? The contract doesn’t specify. Then there’s the matter of deferred compensation, which is described as the maximum allowable under the 457(d) plan. Don’t know what that is? Sucks for you.

I don’t expect a city manager to drive a 1996 Geo Prizm, but I also am of the opinion that anything beyond a solid Toyota Camry is just showing off someone’s ability to overpay for an appliance.

Turns out, the contract provides for $30,000 per year in additional salary, paid into his retirement account, along with the $345,000 contract, plus whatever kind of car he chooses to drive. Call up the city folks, and they’ll tell you the car allowance is $300 every two weeks. That’ll cover a sweet ride.

Just can the shenanigans and tell the people what the full salary and benefits package adds up to. Transparency in government should mean contracts that have more than vague references to other policies and procedures.

The city is better about this than other governments, with agendas that don’t specify even a base salary in the publicly released materials.

Still. C’mon. Throw us a bone. Just itemize the contract amounts. It’s not hard.

Thomure also gets up to 480 hours off for vacation, and 13 days of sick leave. OK, that’s nearly 14 weeks or a third of the year. That’s a long time for a city manager to be gone.

Then again, why not just fly the Bat Signal for Uhlich to come rushing in to sub for Thomure. Apparently, she’s the only qualified civic leader who isn’t currently elected.

By the way, I’ve never known a government’s top dog to be on vacation anything like that long.

City Attorney Mike Rankin’s contract sucks by comparison. He’s making $259,000. By this point, he could sneeze and pull down that much in private practice. He doesn’t get a raise. He doesn’t get any special contractual deferred compensation and only receives 26 days vacation.

He’s been city attorney, the top prosecutor and legal advocate, for 20 years. Show me an attorney who’s worked for 20 years and earns $259,000 and I’ll show you either a lawyer who prefers public service or a really, really bad attorney, which Rankin ain’t.

In other developments, the Council will vote on whether to make 53 “small-dollar” investments in economic development on programs ranging from job training to subsidies for El Tour de Tucson and up budgets for the YWCA Women’s Business Center.

The city Economic and Workforce Development Selection Committee made the recommendations as it does every two years since its establishment in 2010. They put out requests for proposals and organizations offered their services based on the notion that their work was done in the effort of improving Tucson’s economy.

Requests for proposals were put out to the public under the headings of “economic and workforce development” (hence the name) and special events. The committee is proposing giving Job Path $100,000 but the rest of the awards are less than $40,000 each.

Still, the requests added up to $2.7 million, with $600,000 recommended for funding.

Facing a budget deficit in fiscal year 2026, the city staff is giving the council a look at options to help secure some savings.

This week, the council will get a look at employee health care options. To remain in the city’s network plan will cost employees twice as much out of their paychecks. I’m talking $6.49 to $17.20 per paycheck, depending on the kind of coverage.

An option the city is pushing is to encourage workers to switch to a health savings account, which could save workers about $1,700 a year.

A lot of people I respect talk up the value of HSA’s but they are tied to high-deductible accounts. Employees get to sock cash away into a savings account for medical needs and don’t pay taxes on the stash. This money would then be used to pay for the deductibles, which could range from $1,600 to $3,000 before the plan’s insurance coverage gets triggered.

So is it really saving money? Someone would have to put $250 a month into a health savings account to reach the $3,000 for deductibles in a year, or maybe $50 a month to do it in five years. The good news is that the account can be invested in index funds and such to earns gains. They’re kind of tailored to younger workers with a degree of disposable money to toss into savings. Younger bodies don’t need as much health care, the theory goes.

Someday I’m going to do something on HSA’s because I’ve been meaning to learn more and have long suspected they are the enemy of all that is holy. I just don’t have proof.

The Central Tucson PFAS Project has so far filtered, cleaned and discharged 200 million gallons of water into Citation Wash. The “Per- and Polyfluorinated Substances” are removed to below the detection threshold.

I have one problem with the council’s monthly PFAS update. The report/slide show that will be presented states that the goal of the demonstration extraction system now in place is to “Limit the movement of PFAS toward Central Tucson.”

Great. Fine. Whatever.

Riddle me this, why does the map of the project show the extraction and filtration is now taking place in the two miles north of Davis Monthan Air Force Base and out a little from the base’s boundaries?

And since when is North Alvernon Way and East 5th Street not “central Tucson?” The affected area is pretty much bullseye, dead-center Tucson. Maybe not the 150-point dead center but definitely the 75-point outer ring.

If I were the paranoid sort, I’d think they meant the PFAS plume hasn’t yet percolated beneath the Sam Hughes neighborhood. “Remain calm. All’s well. No rich person will be harmed.”

Yeah, no one ran this past the city’s new Office of Equity.

Annnyway, the state and Davis-Monthan have secured nearly $7 million for the clean-up of the fire suppressant stored near runways.

The Council seems poised to declare fentanyl a public health crisis.

According to the city, Pima County averages between 220 and 290 fentanyl deaths per year and that accounts for 60 percent of all overdose deaths. Emergency service workers respond to about 3,000 overdose calls a year.

The city has a three point plan to deal with this: 1) “Create Healthy Communities and Prevent Substance Abuse …” One can tell right away, they don’t have an actual plan. 2) Diagnose and treat substance use disorder. 3) Prevent Sequelae (think injured people getting hooked on painkillers).

Wait a minute. None of this has seemed important up until now?

The city’s plan is a bit “puppy dogs and rainbows”, at least as it stands now.

The Pima County Health Department is on the case and has been doing quite a bit: Quick response teams are using Narcan to treat overdoses, and distributing it as well as deploying a mental health and addiction team.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on a concurrent declaration of a public health emergency.

Tax hikes in the offing?

The Supes are about to tee off on the county staff.

It starts with Supervisor Matt Heinz, who has a bunch of ideas for the board to consider.

First, he wants his colleagues to discuss various ways to raise money for affordable housing projects.

His suggestions range from holding a bond election, to raising a sales tax and the complete non-starter of establishing a county sales tax to finance new affordable housing units.

A county sales tax requires a unanimous vote and the vote won’t happen so long as the board includes a safe GOP seat. I’m not blasting on Steve Christy, the board’s lone Republican. Why would he cast a vote to raise taxes, face a primary and lose, when the man himself doesn’t believe in higher taxes?

Pima County has had zero luck in the last decade getting bond proposals past.

The county could raise primary property taxes, which pay for daily operations, but how many houses is the county government really going to build? Even if the board found $10 million a year, that’s enough to maybe buy five new, hundred unit complexes a year? That’s not going to cut it.

Pima County needs well over 50,000 units to meet projected demand by the end of the decade.

Private sector home starts basically flatlined since the 1990s. The private sector is going to have to get back into the game.

Heinz is also floating a primary property tax increase, in his own way.

Specifically he’s asking why Pima County stopped following a policy to turn state unfunded mandates into tax hikes on county property owners. Had supervisors stuck with procedure, they would have raised property taxes by 5 cents per $100 in 2023. County Administrator Jan Lesher recommended quashing the Chuck Huckelberry-era policy and the board followed her lead.

Now that the county is eying a possible budget deficit next fiscal year, he’s pressing the board to raise that tax now.

Raising Pima County taxes because the state told the counties to do more with less is a move intended to point voter ire at the Legislature. I’ve always doubted it worked.

A big reason is that county secondary tax has been coming down while property taxes increase. The secondary taxes are collected mostly to pay off county bonds. The bonds get retired. The secondary tax comes down and the county is then free to raise primary property taxes without too much of a bite.

Heinz often just puts items on the agenda to trigger a vote. He doesn’t enjoy the best batting average working this way. This time, though, he’s trying to fold his tax increase into the broader budget discussions. That’s better process, but I’m not sure it wins three votes.

Heinz is also asking that correspondence from the Pima County Attorney’s Office to the board can be made public. The documents involve whether Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos can start a “deflection” program.  Deflection programs identify people in the community with drug
issues and encourage them to seek treatment before they get arrested. The trick is to get them
into an available treatment program they can afford.

Then there’s Supervisor Sylvia Lee’s cross-examination of JobPath expenditures versus the county’s own One Stop program.

She’s basically asking if the One Stop could act like JobPath.

JobPath is a workforce training and placement operation that works in concert with the One Stop, which is, well, a one-stop shop for state and county services.

Specifically Lee wants to know what the per-client costs are with each going back to 2020.

They both cost the county about $1,200 per student or client. However, JobPath also gets help from other local governments. So JobPath’s total per-student spending from all sources breaks $3,000 per student.

It’s a bit bananas and Bengal tigers because people who go to the One Stop would be sent to a program like JobPath.

This is how government ends up with duplication. It starts with innocent questions like “Why can’t we do what that social service agency is doing? We’re a social service agency, kind of.”

Christy has a couple things he wants done, so long as we’re at it.

First, he wants the county to step in and help Mount Lemmon residents get fire insurance.

Second, Christy wants to discuss a report on the U.S. Mexico border. Of course he does. He’s a Republican in an election year.

It’s not an unreasonable request, though. The county is doing a lot to oversee how legal asylum seekers (read that again, “legal”) are processed through Tucson. The report was prepared by the county Office of Emergency Management.

The county, working with Casa Alitas and Catholic Community Services, processed 1,642 migrants in a single day on Dec. 22, 2023, and that week established a high-water mark for legal migration transiting through Pima County.

In all, the county has released 466,368 migrants since Jan. 1, 2019.

The daily average runs 730 arrivals per day, which includes 170 single adults and 510 family members.

Pima County does not break out the completely made-up term “military-aged men” because that demographic could just as easily be labeled “intern-aged men,” or “fraternity-aged men” or “help-grandpa-with-the-iPhone-aged men.”

Pension problem improving

The supervisors will vote – as required by law – to accept the county’s share of assets and liabilities in three pension systems, and state that it has a plan to pay its share of the debt in the next 13 years.

The state oversees a number of pension funds, even though the terms of the pensions are set at the local level. Each city, for instance, negotiates its own pension for its police officers. The second pension is for county prosecutors.

A pension board decides how to invest the aggregated pension money collected from each jurisdiction.

However, the overall cops and firefighter pension system fell below 50 percent in the wake of the Great Recession. The state and local governments have been trying to climb out of that hole.

In 2016, Arizona voters approved a constitutional amendment that sought to fix the pension issues and that was followed up with a state law demanding local governments annually accept the responsibility to restore their pensions to 100 percent of the obligations.

So now the Supes are accepting their responsibilities.

Pima County’s funding ratio for sheriff’s deputies now stands at 84 percent, which means it can meet that amount of future pension payments.

It also established a reserve fund, which was at $25 million last year but now stands at $17 million, after making a honking payment toward future liabilities.

This is a long way of saying the state and local governments got themselves into pension trouble and now local governments have to agree every year “yes, this is what we owe and we’ll pay it by 2037.”

The other two pension systems, which were not as burdened, provide retirement benefits to prosecutors and corrections officers.

A new treasurer in Santa Cruz

Down in Nogales, four candidates have applied for the county treasurer position.

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will interview the candidates behind closed doors on Monday.

Then on Tuesday, the board will hold a public vote to fill the post left vacant when Liz Gutfahr fled it amid federal investigations for possibly mishandling county finances.

They are:

  • Alejandro Paz, an accounts payable specialist with the University of Arizona and a former branch manager at Wells Fargo Bank, and a 2011 graduate of Arizona State University. He has an Interdisciplinary Studies degree with emphases in business management, tourism management and development.
  • Karla Osete-Martinez, finance director of CanAm Fresh and a graduate of the University of Phoenix with an accounting degree.
  • Gloria Patricia Ibarra is the senior secretary in the treasurer’s office and has 10 years experience.
  • Nicholas Fernandez, is a 2022 graduate of the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. He’s currently the social media manager of Jim Click Automotive Group after having served as an account executive for Yelp. He also has two years experience working in the financial sector during three jobs at three financial firms.

Ibarra has experience in the office, so she seems like the best choice. All of the candidates are quiet about whether they would seek a full term, thereby cashing in on an incumbency handed to them by the board and not earned before voters.

I admire Hernandez’s chutzpah in grabbing for a job in elected office. I suggest he try a school board or local council before jumping into a position as potentially fraught as one that could land someone in the the federal pen.

Remember, a good treasurer is a treasurer no one hears about.

Rebates and the ridiculous

The Marana Town Council will vote on providing a rebate for water users.

The town got a $242,000 state grant for two years to pay for most of it. The town Water Department will kick in another $60,000.

So it’s not a big rebate but it will be something. Marana town staff now wants to ask the council how to select those eligible for rebates and how the policy should be implemented.

Once again, Marana will vote to exempt undercover investigators from having to stamp “For Official Use Only” on their fenders.

State law requires all government vehicles be clearly identified as belonging to that jurisdiction. Lawmakers have not provided a permanent carve out for undercover cops.

That this is regularly required is maybe the dumbest law on the books in Arizona, and that’s saying so much.

Of course, cops who go deep into a drug ring shouldn’t be rolling up with government plates. A lot of criminals are stupid. They ain’t that stupid.

The South Tucson City Council will get a look at the city’s fiscal year 2025 budget projections during a regular meeting Tuesday. It’s a preliminary baseline budget but it’s a start.

Councilmembers will also discuss truth in taxation. That’s code for describing how increasing property values provide more revenue to governments that collect property taxes.

In some circles, this constitutes a tax increase, even if tax rates don’t budge. If someone’s property valuation increases by 10 percent, so does the property tax bill.