Zero hour arrives for Tucson and RTA; Trump thinks voters are stupid

It’s put-up or shut-up time for the RTA, as the Tucson City Council will discuss City Manager Mike Ortega’s reservations on whether to re-up for another 20 years of a community-wide approach to transportation planning.

The Regional Transportation Authority expires in 2026 and a half-cent sales tax will vanish along with it, meaning an end to $90 million a year for roads, sidewalks, intersections and mass transit. All nine nine jurisdictions making up the RTA must agree to be part of the extension, being branded now as “RTA Next,” before bringing it to voters for another go.

The City Council has been a reluctant participant during the whole of the process, stemming largely from only having one of nine votes on the RTA Board but providing most of the sales tax revenue.

In a memo delivered to the Council this month, Ortega said he can’t justify the Council continuing in the process if it’s going to essentially provide $30 million a year more to the project than it gets back. That’s how he calculates the costs/benefits based on the current draft plan the RTA is considering.

He’s also questioning whether the RTA’s projections aren’t a bit pessimistic, based on research the city has commission with the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to think that when the 2026 RTA is expected to bring in just $2.3 billion, almost exactly as much money over 20 years as the $2.1 billion in the original 2006 plan.

The Great Recession put a hurt on the RTA’s revenues over the course of the last 20 years and so the board is being ultra-cautious this time. That’s creating a lot of wrangling over conservative projections. Better projections may be more realistic and provide more options.

Pima Association of Governments Executive Director Farhad Moghimi says that’s an irrelevant concern because if the tax raises more money, the RTA is free to keep spending it on transportation projects around the community. 

Fair enough, Farhad. However, the council is smart to point out that the public won’t be happy if the RTA pulls in an extra billion dollars and spends it on a list of things voters never approved.

The council members are remaining mum on their individual positions on the matter. They are presenting a wall of silence after scheduling a sales tax election for the summer to pay for yet-to-be-determined city priorities. It’s a weird election to call unless it’s a shot across the RTA’s bow.

I mean, sure, there’s the matter of challenging a state law in place for 10 years dictating when local governments can ask voters to raise sales or property taxes. They didn’t need it to pass a sales tax hike for transportation, public safety or the zoo.

The Council’s silence is the equivalent of the old playground scenario where people ask a 12-year-old “Hey, Oscar, what do you have behind your back?” And the reply is a smirk and a “Nuthin.”

I won’t rehash all the columns I’ve written on this except to say I’ve been, for more than a year, calling for the city and RTA to sit down and iron out their differences.

That’s basically what Ortega told me needs to be done now.

Tuesday, the public should get a better idea of where council members stand. This time next month, the community will know if the RTA plan is alive or if the Council will pursue a city-only transportation tax that could rip the guts out of the regional approach.

Justice delayed or denied

Behind closed doors, the Council will get a rundown from its attorneys on a lawsuit by Louis Taylor’s guardian to have him cleared of blame in the Pioneer Hotel fire in 1970. 

Taylor, 16 at the time, was convicted of setting the fire that killed 29 people. In 2013, Taylor was released from prison when evidence showed the fire could very well have been caused by wiring and not arson. Actually, the Arizona Justice Project found the evidence, asked for a new trial and then County Attorney Barbara LaWall decided instead to offer Taylor a plea deal, because too much time had passed since the first trial to hold another. 

So Taylor had to agree to not fight the 28 felony murder charges (A 29th person died later of injuries from the fire) in order to get out of prison. Might I posit: If LaWall actually believed Taylor killed 29 people, she wouldn’t let him out of prison. If she is going to let him out of prison, why insist he shut up in court about his innocence?

Current County Attorney Laura Conover announced she would file to toss his conviction and then back tracked. 

Oh for God sakes, people. Do you think he did it or don’t you? Do you have a more than reasonable concern that an all white jury in the 1970s decided he was guilty because they looked at him and didn’t like what they saw? If so, do the right thing.

This case has had a stench around it for years. He was convicted largely because he was nearby when the fire happened and (I kid you not) on testimony like  “black boys like to start fires.” I mean … what? David Duke looks at that and says “yeah, that’s racist.”I don’t usually read stuff from the late 20th Century that makes me choke on my tongue. “Black boys like to start fires ….” Oh my effing God. 

This case has always screamed of “Fear not! We will find the black kid responsible for this unspeakable tragedy.”

There are limits to protecting the sanctity of the jury verdict.

Two steps up, one step back

The Council will get a rundown on homelessness during a monthly round up going over the number people in shelters, the number of cases and how to move people without homes into them. 

The community has established a housing central command, which sounds silly but I like it. It means people are in charge of the whole process, with a big-picture view of what needs to be done and how to do it. 

They also have hired encampment assessors to work with homeless camps and try to get them into the system with shelter on the other end. Each assessor will have their own area where they will, hopefully, get to know the people and a relationship can be established to build trust.

Since January, the city has identified 111 people and have 300 possible units for them to live in. Hmmm. Is it starting to look a bit like progress?

Well, two steps forward and one step back. The Council will discuss passing an ordinance banning camping in riparian washes. We’re talking homeless camps. I just worry we’ll tell them they can’t sleep on public property, private property or public rights areas. 

The Council does understand that sleep is a human necessity, right? There seems to be this new trend that isn’t so much criminalizing homelessness but criminalizing the homeless’ bodily necessities. In other words, it’s OK to be homeless – just not if you are a biological human.

Arizona prides itself on being a low-tax, low-service state where employers are encouraged to pay workers small wages. Don’t expect Scandanavian results with Arizona taxes. “Good citizens” are just going to see the hard reality of poverty. It’s what they vote for time and time again.

I get there are safety concerns about camping in the wash. I do. And a lot of my gripes relate to national phenomena and talk out of the Legislature and a smatter of complaints I hear in public. The Council is trying to be good. 

The Council will also discuss whether to accept a GPLET (God bless you).

The Government Property Lease Excise Tax is about as sexy as it sounds but it’s a tool to encourage development in places where investment is lacking.

The plan is for a an 18-unit apartment building over a retail space at 941 N. Stone Avenue. That’s infill, density, housing and mixed use. Everything that new development should be encouraged to be.

Now, the GPLET (God bless you) is a bit of a convoluted scheme approved by the state legislature. Basically, the applicant will turn the property over to the city, which will lease it back to the owner at the price of an excise tax on rent. The total cost is less than a property tax. 

So it saves the property owner money by exchanging property tax for a small sales tax.

The pro-business Republicans created this tax break and now the MAGA Republicans want to put an end to it.  So too does the Goldwater Institute, but they just take a pretty absolutist view of the state constitutional ban on government gifts to private business. The GI is consistent about that.

Big developers in Phoenix have taken generous helpings of this tax break but we are talking 18 rental units over a flower shop, or some such thing.

Shameless Wildcat plug

Ah, yes. Crystal, water-colored memories.

The Tucson City Council will vote to approve hiring two magistrates.

Julia Maldonado is a mortal lock for one position as she is up for reappointment. She will continue to be paid $155,700 a year.

The other is a bit of a conflict for me.

The Council will choose between three candidates to fill the post created by the resignation of Antonio Riojas. They are: Sarah Mayhew, Paul Skitzki and another guy I didn’t go to college with or know from a previous life. (Donald Alfred McDonald).

I’m pretty sure Skitzki was in my dorm during my freshman year and I remember thinking that he was cool and funny. I might be completely wrong about this, in which case invoke the Biden Rule. Take me out back and make it quick at the base of the skull. 

I, for a fact, know I worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat with Sarah Mayhew. If she gets it, mind the Ps and Qs at any appearance before her. Cross Clint Eastwood with Tinkerbell and that’s kinda the Mayhew I remember. That’s not a bad mix for a judge.

Trump thinks you’re stupid

On March 31, Pima County will be running out of money needed to participate in helping legal asylum seekers. So County Administrator Jan Lesher has told the board to prepare to wind down its efforts to shelter these migrants.

The board will discuss this during their Tuesday meeting. 

Talk about it getting real. About1,200 migrants a day could go homeless in Pima County, unless something is done. In a week, Tucson’s homeless population could more than double.

Be very clear: Its’ because Trump wants it that way. A border bill was negotiated in the U.S. Senate that would have provided money to deal with the influx, caused by political upheaval in Central and South America. It also would have provided President Biden serious crack down authority. 

Trump wanted the crisis to worsen because it’s better for his campaign. He told Congressional Republicans to reject the deal they insisted on as part of a broader agreement to fund Ukraine.

He wants Tucson besieged by migrants because he thinks Arizonans are dumb enough to just blame Biden because “it happened on his watch.”

This is a cry for help from Lesher. Who will listen?

U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani’s party demanded this bill and then walked away from it because the Mad Mango so ordered.  Who does Ciscomani represent? Tucson? Or Mar-a-Lago? 

I think we know the answer because the proof will flood our streets April 1, unless something is done.

Obvious jail options

The Pima County Board of Supervisors created a Blue Ribbon Commission to study options for the Adult Detention Center and that group has come back with a report essentially saying “there are options.”

OK. Well. Thanks for that. And people think Blue Ribbon Commissions are a waste of time.

It’s 270 pages that discuss the options in detail but the commission has not decided on anything in particular. 

Instead, it said that the county can build a new jail, renovate the existing jail or do a combination. Then it lists a series of revenue options any cub reporter with a year on the job would know are the funding options. They can have a jail district tax. They can bond. They can use primary taxes. The supes can do a pay-as-you-go plan.

Commissioners also recommended going to the people and seeing what they want. Hey, how about creating a blue ribbon commission  that reports to the Blue Ribbon Commission.

Somewhere there is a dog with a belly full of homework.

I will say this much, the big take away is that the commission is not overly eager to build a new jail. This surprises me a little bit because the old jail is an old design that may not function as well when short staffed. Given the current economic reality, planning for a future with fewer guards may be the way to go, just for safety sake.

Commissioners did argue the county shouldn’t consider the jail in isolation. A whole review of the criminal justice system may be in order. At the same time, the report warns against waiting for that perfect day before pursuing a better one.

Without a firm recommendation, Pima County Sheriff Chris Nanos put the jail issue right back where it started. In the supervisors’ lap.

Paging Constable Vasquez …

Supervisors will also vote on whether to suspend Constable Oscar Vasquez. It appears he has a problem showing up for work, which he hasn’t done since April 26, 2023.

Well, that’s one way to serve in elected office. 

It turns out that failure to show up to fill elected office is a misdemeanor called “nonfeasance.” Constables are elected to do a job. They technically work for the voters and not directly under anyone in county administration, unless they are guilty of a crime.

The Arizona Constable Ethics and Training Board recommended Vasquez’s suspension and forwarded its findings of possible nonfeasance to the Presiding Judge of Pima County and the Pima County Attorney’s office.

Vasquez responded to complaints made against him by his former colleague Jim Lake, explaining that he has had medical issues. However, he has yet to provide any documentation of this medical condition.

Supervisor’s chair Adelita Grijalva is raising the stakes a bit by asking the board to consider removing and replacing Vasquez. 

Supervisors will vote on carrying the city of South Tucson as it waits for its sales taxes to generate enough cash to pay for fire protection and related emergency services. 

OK. This is getting serious. The board is slated to vote to provide $400,000 to cover this year but for following years, a deal will be negotiated to get the city back to self-sufficiency. It’s one thing to contract services to outside governments. That’s fine. Rich communities in Phoenix do that. It’s another thing to ask another government to provide services for a municipality that can’t afford them.

Fire protection is pretty basic and it’s the problem facing the South Tucson City Council. A couple new fire trucks can swallow a huge chunk of the city’s budget and their equipment is getting old. However, getting out of the fire service business seems to be a blow to the morale of South Tucson.

But numbers are numbers.

Ask before vacationing

The Oro Valley Town Council will hold a study session to discuss its economic development plan.

Plan? Economic development is pretty straight forward. Attract jobs, create jobs with help to start ups and assist in expansion of existing businesses.

However, all councils love planning and so a plan has been hatched.

It’s about what everyone would expect: It aims to attract jobs and help with startups using the UA Innovation Ecosystem and the university’s incubator at OV’s Innovation Park. A “huzzah” for the effort. A “gag” for the buzz wordsmithing.

A couple of interesting points: The town wants to focus on medical diagnostics. Could that be because Ventana Medical Systems is already there? That’s smart. Creating a business cluster would be a huge help to the economy. 

The plan also calls for more retail. OK, I get it. It helps to make Oro Valley more marketable if the town has the proper allotment of hip retail and entertainment. But those jobs don’t exactly pay well.

In Marana the town council is preparing to buy 12,000 acre feet of water rights from the Tohono O’odham Nation for the cool price of $4.8 million.

It’s actually the right to store CAP water that would otherwise be allocated to the nation.

The council will also vote Tuesday, to tell the staff to give more heads up about vacations and leaves of absence. 

Here’s a sample: “Supervisors must formally approve vacation leave requests in advance of employees taking vacation leave.” Hey now, there’s an idea. Maybe that’s what Vasquez is up to at Pima County. He’s just taken a very long vacation that he’ll get approved once he gets back.

The changes to the personnel policy will also allow supervisors to deny vacation requests if the absence causes problems for the town. 

The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors will vote to provide $80,000 to urban planner Stephanie Smith to work as an independent contractor and draft a “Good Neighbor Agreement” with the proposed Hermosa Mine near Patagonia. South 32, an Australian mining company, has begun the fast-tracked process to mine material necessary for a “green transition” but community members are highly wary of allowing the mine.

The mine is currently in the environmental assessment phase, where it must comply with an accelerated approval process under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Smith’s contract is for two years, and renewable thereafter. So the mine doesn’t seem imminent.