The election that never was: Tucson Council to stamp out summer sales tax vote; Pima Supes look at I-11

There will be no city sales tax election in August. Repeat: There will be no election August 6 and not just because holding it that day would be illegal.

The Tucson City Council will vote during its regular meeting Tuesday to cancel the strangest “election” never held in Southern Arizona.

When I say this election was not thought out, I mean boy was this thing not thought out. The state changed the primary election date to July 30, after the city formally set the vote. But the city never changed the date accordingly. An August tax election wasn’t even clearly legal under state law, so the city got a lawmaker to ask the Attorney General’s Office to OK the move. That happened, but the city never made the shift to July.

So the election is being canceled for a date upon which it never could have happened.

Jim Nintzel reported for the Tucson Sentinel that the city clerk has previously said the Council missed the deadline for getting ballot language to Pima County, if they actually wanted to send something specific to voters. That’s because the Council had no real clue what they might want a new voter-approved sales tax to do.

Police? Fire? Parks? Sure. Why not?

My sense has been that, back in February, the Council set the election as a warning to the eight other jurisdictions of the Regional Transportation Authority. If the city doesn’t get a transportation plan it likes, it would hold its own vote on a city-only road and transit program.

There’s been no resolution to the conflict between the city and RTA board.

But the city staff had done no legwork or public outreach before setting this “election.” That’s not how Tucson operates. The Council uses public input like Athena used her aegis armor to protect ballot issues from criticism. 

“Hey, this isn’t us on the Council backing this new tax. Your neighbors want this.”

Don’t be shocked if some sort of election is held sometime next year. The city is set to bolt the RTA’s next 20-year round of funding, which would likely kill the whole county-wide transportation plan.

Moving on to things that are going to happen….

Check to see if the sun still lifts up out of the east and sets over the Tucson Mountains, because I’m about to commend the Arizona Legislature.

Yes, that Legislature.

The Legislature passed three new laws on housing development that I can get behind. The Tucson City Council will discuss how these changes affect the city’s development code, which will require amendments to conform with the new laws by Jan. 1.

SB 1162 requires zoning applications be approved or denied within 180 days of determining all the paperwork is complete. Municipalities would have 30 days to review applications to make sure they are in order.

Currently, the city code requires the zoning inspector to hear a rezoning case within 70 days of the application’s submission.

Time is money when it comes to affordability. The faster projects are approved, the fewer costs builders will rack up to pass on to buyers or renters.  That doesn’t mean builders will cut prices. However, they will feel a little less need to raise prices to pencil out the same profit margins.

Another provision of the law, I really like. It requires municipalities to establish a housing needs assessment. It helps to know what’s needed, in order to understand what must be done.

Then there’s HB 2721, which requires cities to allow “middle housing” within a mile of the central business district in municipalities with a population over 75,000.

Middle housing is defined as duplexes, triplexes or “fourplexes” (I refuse to believe that’s a word.) This sort of attached multi-unit housing ought to be cheaper to build.

There’s a bit of a nasty hammer attached to this bill. If a municipality fails to adopt changes to its development code allowing these centrally located homes, then the middle housing will be allowed for all residential development throughout the city.

The city will have to come back with an edit of its development rules to comply with this law.

A third law, HB 2297, tells local governments to allow up to 10 percent of commercial projects to be used for multi-family housing without requiring special permission. Tucson basically has this covered, as its laws permits multi-family housing commercial, office and mixed-use projects.

Every little bit helps to increase residential inventory after construction fell off a cliff in the wake of the housing bubble.

Yes, it would be nice if the Legislature would institute taxing income from excessive rent increases, but the current crop of lawmakers is probably more likely to force renters into chattel slavery than provide any form of rent control. We’ll take what we can get.

More housing stuff

Meanwhile, the Rincon Heights/Pie Allen neighborhoods are set to get protections if Council members approve new preservation overlay zones that would encompass both.

The Council established such zones in 2008 to “preserve, protect,and enhance the unique character and historical resources of established city neighborhoods.”

New buildings were going up in some areas, and didn’t look like they belonged.

Councilmembers will review the overlay ordinance during the study session.

Basically, this overlay zone would provide some additional zoning restrictions on property owners in the neighborhoods between the University of Arizona and Downtown.

Those restrictions would constitute a down-zoning. In 2006, Arizona voters approved the Private Property Rights Protection Act, which allows owners to sue if any new local development rule reduces the value of a parcel. Down-zonings do that because the less a property owner can do with their property, the less a property might be worth.

So the City Attorney’s Office is warning the new rules could very well trigger litigation.

Also, the Council will hold a public hearing on a city-initiated mixed-use development on the 1-acre site of its old fire station at 250 W. King Rd. (near North Oracle Road).

The plan is to put in a new emergency shelter and day-use service center using the “village housing model.” Village housing is a way to build projects that promote community, with open common areas.

Councilmembers are also set to vote on a new deal with Pima County to operate the Knights Inn as a housing center for those who are “sleeping rough.”

Local governments are trying to help people find shelter in a “non-congregate” setting. That just means not everyone is crammed into a single large room, like an empty gym filled with cots.

The city and county have an agreement approved in December for the county to run the Knights Inn. The project was maintained with coronavirus relief money but will now be funded by the Statue Housing Trust, and administered by Pima County.

We can have nice things

The Council will also vote on setting new property tax rates and a levy.

Tucson’s city property tax rate will fall by a half-cent per $100 of assessed valuation for primary taxes and .06-of-a-cent for secondary taxes, decreasing as old bond debt is retired. Don’t spend that 600th of a cent per $100 all in one place. Then again, how could one not?

In Arizona, cities rely more on sales taxes than property taxes. Changes to the city’s rate isn’t going to pack much of a punch.

The Council will also vote to re-up the Downtown Business Improvement District’s tax assessment, to be run by the Downtown Tucson Partnership.

Property owners Downtown agreed (most of them anyway) to establish the “BID” to spruce the area up and make it nice for visitors.

While on the topic of nice things, Councilmember Nikki Lee wants permission to spend $140,000 in discretionary funds made available to her ward office, using the money to replace playground equipment in Lincoln and Purple Heart parks.

Councilmembers get a budget with which to run their offices. Lee didn’t spend all her money on pens and pizza parties so she has some left over to do this. Smart politics.

Typo on budget, this columnist can commiserate

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote on its final $1.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2024-25.

A typo in the tentative budget will be rectified, and provide property owners with an imaginary tax cut of .36 cents per $100,000 of assessed valuation. The scrivener’s error resulted in misstating the Library District Tax as $0.5573 per $100 of assessed value versus the actual amount of $0.5537 per hundred.

It’s a typo. Nothing actually changed.

However, a reader who you read through the budget document, did the math on
your property taxes and already started squirreling away nine dimes over the course of the year, choose your vending machines wisely. That Snickers bar may have to last.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva is asking the county staff to put together a presentation about how well a 2019 ordinance is working to keep tobacco and vaping products away from kids.

The county raised the legal age to buy tobacco and vapes to 21. She wants to the Health Department and state Attorney General’s Office to show how the law has changed use patterns.

Grijalva also wants the board to weigh in against a proposed Interstate 10 bypass of Tucson through Avra Valley west of town. Interstate 11 is what the U.S. Department of Transportation now calls what was Highway 93 from Las Vegas to Wickenburg, as part of a planned north-south corridor connecting Canada to Mexico.

A route has been approved that would swing truck traffic west of Tucson and hook into Interstate 19 south of the metro area, around Green Valley. A major fear is that it would move warehousing and logistics operations out of town.

There’s also a suspicion that this is the work of Phoenicians trying to turn Tucson into Holbrooke. Towns along Route 66 boarded up after the age of the interstates arrived. Conspiracy-minded? Yes. Crazy? No.

There is one thing to keep in mind: the bypass is in no way imminent.

According to the Arizona Transportation Department’s latest news on a proposed Tucson bypass, the next steps “include (National Environmental Policy Act) approval, identifying funding …” OK. I stopped reading. Wake me from my cryogenic slumber in the year 3024, when either of those things actually happen.

Supes will vote to spend $400,000 on the work of outside nonprofits toward fostering travel and tourism.

These commitments are of the $10,000 to $50,000 variety for organizations like the Tucson Rodeo Parade Committee and El Tour de Tucson. The biggest benefactor is the Tucson Botanical Gardens, which will get $46,000.

The Tuesday meeting is the last of the fiscal year, so Supes have to get the money out the door.