Tucson seeks increases in city trash, water & parks fees

The Tucson City Council has an absolutely jam-packed agenda this week. Seriously, the raspberry spread is getting all over my keyboard.

Let’s start with what will tick people off.

Some municipal service fees are set to increase, and the Council will hold a public hearing ahead of the proposals that cover water, trash and parks.

City Manager Mike Ortega will ask the elected leaders to vote on raising trash collection fees from $16.75 per month for a 95-gallon garbage receptacle to $20 in Fiscal Year 2023 and $23 in FY 2024. That’s about a 30 percent increase.

The rates haven’t been increased since 2010, Ortega was quick to point out. True, and there was damned-near a political insurrection the previous year after the Council voted to impose a trash fee at all.

It wasn’t as bad as when the Council increased water rates in the 1970s. That lead to a recall effort. Speaking of which, the Council is set to raise water rates.

Specifically, the vote will be to increase the Central Arizona Project surcharge from $.70 per hundred cubic square feet (748 gallons) to $1.00 per ccf, followed by 5.5 percent increases each year for the next three years. That works out to a final bill of $1.17 per hundred cubic feet.

The city is asking for a 36 percent increase but it’s not for the water rate itself. That’s the bulk of the bill.

There are plans in place to provide assistance to Tucson Water customers earning up to 100 percent of the poverty level.

Also, we’re talking about Colorado River water. The future there is dicey and carries – if nothing else – a risk premium.

Oh, and there’s the Parks and Recreation Department looking for a bunch of new fees. The plan, for example, would double the cost of the KIDCO Summer program, from $250 to $500. KIDCO prices are also going up for school-year services.

The plan is to also increase park fees here and there on everything from permits to parking fees.

The Council will also take its first step to reimposing Sun Tran fares, which have suspended since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal money for that paid for free service will end Dec. 31. In March 2020, the council also suspended Sun Express routes.

So the city must conduct a study to prove the fees and suspensions don’t have a disparate effect on minorities. The council will vote to accept an analysis showing no such racial outcomes on either the old fare system or the suspension of express service.

The study included a public input portion. Allow me to make the following observation.

Say someone is an irregular user, taking the bus less than necessary to get a monthly pass. Used to be, riders would just get on board and pay, while asking for a transfer. Nope. Not anymore.

Now, riders have to first go stand in line at say, Fry’s customer service, behind two to three people trying to wire transfer money in a process that can take about 15 minutes. Then it’s the person arguing about a coupon and then it’s the rider, who’s been in line for 40 minutes so they can buy the super-convenient day pass to let them take a 20-minute bus ride.

If the goal is to increase bus ridership, maybe don’t make prospective customers do that.

The good news

In a column this week, I suggested the Council fire off a bunch of initiatives to improve the affordable housing situation in Tucson.

Apparently, I was reading the city’s collective mind.

The City Council, during a regular meeting and study session, is making a move of sorts on the affordable housing crisis.

Council members will vote on a new law forbidding the “source of income” to disqualify would-be renters. The ordinance is meant to help recipients of federal housing vouchers at least get in the door to submit an application to rent an apartment in Tucson.

Rents have been spiking in recent years and it’s borderline, from an average of about $850 for a two-bedroom apartment to nearly $1,300 this year. Incomes have not matched that increase.

The Council isn’t stopping there. It’s going to vote on new fee collection system as part of an upgraded permitting system meant to streamline the development approval process. 

If there’s one complaint about the city that goes back as far as the Wildcat-Sun Devil rivalry, it involves getting required paperwork done in anything resembling a timely manner.

The city is now trying to address that.

The council will also vote on a $150,000 impact fee waiver for a new 70-unit low and moderate income apartment complex.

It’s good to have that kind of a program, but it’s limited to nonprofits, tends to concentrate that kind of housing and the city has budgeted just $500,000 for impact fee waivers. So the program is only good for about 200 apartment units.

Pima County has done a study showing the community needs 70,000 by 2028. At this rate, we might get there in the year 2372 anno Domini. I’m sensing a math problem.

Tucson odds and city ends

The Council is also set to start – I wrote start – it’s redistricting process ahead of the 2023 elections.

Members are being asked to create and name the redistricting committee and give it a Nov. 30 deadline to carve up ward maps for elections through the rest of the decade.

Ortega told the Council in a memo that finding Tucsonans to fill the committee has proven a challenge.

They will also vote on a new contract for the Tucson Fire Fighter Association. It reached a broad deal earlier this year. The Tucson Police Officers Association object to the proposal and sent their labor contract to arbitration, which could go on until 2023.

Crisis updates

Meanwhile, during a study session earlier on Tuesday, the council is scheduled to get an update on efforts to fight homelessness (maybe give us a bit more aggressive impact fee plan, just sayin’).

Tucson has just added a fourth homeless shelter with the conversion of the old No-Tel Motel (I’m freaking serious). Staff has also been meeting and agreed to four types of responses to homelessness, ranging from clean up of abandoned “homeless camps” (a.k.a., unhoused people seeking safety in numbers) and reacting to a crisis-level concentration of people needing shelter.

Ortega is telling the Council that no single solution will fix the problem. 

Well, maybe getting them in homes is a good place to start and for that Tucson needs more than four temporary shelters, a 70-unit apartment complex and $500,000 in impact fee waivers.

They’re working on it.

The Council will also get a rundown of how the city’s water will be affected by Lake Mead’s persistent shrinking. 

The reservoir is supposed to feed Arizona 1.4 million acre feet, per year. The drought has left the lake dangerously close to falling to dead-pool levels during the West’s never-ending drought.

So the state lost 592,000 acre feet of its annual allocation.

The city is fine for now and even agreed to keep 30,000 acre feet of its share in the lake. Tucson has stopped delivering water to recharge facilities to make the accommodation.

The meeting will also include an update on the downtown business improvement district. The BID (as it is called in abbreviated form) actually predates by one year voters approving the broader downtown redevelopment program Rio Nuevo.

The improvement district basically does maintenance, operations and marketing through by taxing 120 owners of 394 properties in the downtown core.

The Tucson Business Partnership runs the day-to-day operations but its contract is set to expire in June 2023.

The Council is expected to discuss how to proceed with the contract coming to an end.

Finally, Juneteenth may become a holiday for city workers. 

This is the day that commemorates when word of the emancipation of African American slaves finally reached Texas in 1865, when Union Gen. Gordon Granger read General Order 3, announcing the Emancipation Proclamation.

June 19 is already a federal holiday. 

If approved by the City Council, Juneteenth would join Independence Day, Labor Day Veterans Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year’s Day, Martin Luther King Day, President’s Day, Cesar Chavez Day and a Floating holiday that can be used for a birthday.

Each holiday costs the city about $600,000.

Nogales bound

Down at the border, the Nogales City Council and Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors are holding single-topic special meetings.

The council will do what so many other local governments have done and will no doubt do: Take a second to figure out exactly where they stand on coronavirus relief funds.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law in 2021, is winding down and certain deadlines must be met to commit federal dollars to a qualifying use or those dollars can be forfeited.

Nogales has tighter budgets than many communities in the region and will have to pay special attention to that money.

The Board of Supervisors has just one item on its agenda: Forest Service roads.

You gotta be a pretty geeky local politics columnist to find that the least bit interesting. Well, geeks are us, here at the Tucson agenda.

The U.S. Forest Service operates roads on national forests and those roads become part of the local transportation system. So the Santa Cruz County board wants to come with a plan to figure out how those roads are planned and maintained.

I’ve never seen an initiative like this. I think it’s great.

Cops, lawyers and recessions

The Sahuarita Town Council will vote on a series of grants from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety.

These contracts total $43,000 and pay for overtime related to traffic and DUI enforcement as well as bicycle safety and accident investigations.

The council will also vote on a proposal to move $300,000 from the Legal Department’s civil division and the fund balance. That seems like a lot but in a strange twist of tech, the background material for the agenda didn’t load properly. So the rationale will remain a mystery until the meeting.

During the meeting, council members will also hold a special study session to discuss fiscal contingencies should a recession strike.

The town is in good shape to handle something short term because half its budget is “fund balance.” It’s good to be on top of things though.

Literacy, strings and mental health

The Amphitheater School District Governing Board will get an update on literacy. Apparently, there hasn’t been a literacy study in the district in quite some time. How long? “Many years,” is how the district staff described it in a memo to the board.

A new state law requires 3rd graders be tested annually for dyslexia. It’s one of those rare state laws that make a hell of a lot of sense.

The Flowing Wells Unified School District will also vote on continuing a partnership with the with the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The museum provides in-person and virtual instruction for the district’s schools.

No dollar amount was a attached.

How much does a new stringed-instrument room cost at Catalina Foothills High School?

Well, the schematics will run the district $315,425. 

The Catalina Foothills Unified School District will vote on whether to approve a contract for that purpose and amount to local architectural firm Swaim and Associates.

It’s actually not crazy to spend that much to design a room with special musical acoustics. 

For a non-musician, it’s striking.

The Vail Unified School District Governing Board will vote to approve a contract with local mental health firm Text, Talk Act.

The $3,200 contract provides training to counselors to deal with a variety of mental health issues and meeting students where they are: On their phones.

The company began as a University of Arizona program and has become a national company.

The Vail Board will also go over the financial report the district will send to the U.S. Department of Education to explain how they are spending their coronavirus relief money.

The report is less a financial run down as it is a description of programs are in compliance with rules set for districts receiving Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief dollars. 

Shotgunning policies

I have one more gripe concerning the bulk of the business to be done by the Amphi, Flowing Wells and Catalina Foothills boards.

Each of these boards is shoving through a bunch of policy changes involving some of the most controversial matters school districts confront.

The Amphitheater Board is tackling 21 policy changes as a single agenda item.

Flowing Wells will put the finishing touches on 22.

Catalina Foothills is taking a more measured approach on seven policy revisions.

Amphi’s list alone involves hazing, transportation services, bus driver requirements, training, and responsibilities as well as staff health and safety.  

Then there’s the basic instructional program, library materials, selection and adoption (because God knows books have never been divisive) and graduation requirements. 

They’re also voting on completely uncontroversial (ha, ha) topics like family life education, interscholastic sports, immunizations and teaching about controversial subjects or sensitive issues. 

Board members will dive into policies involving school counselors, student surveys, visitors to the school and parental involvement in education.

I mean, holy public accountability, Miss Beadle. 

But this isn’t just the work of school districts. The Arizona Legislature can’t keep its hands off the state’s school districts and micromanages the hell out of them on behalf of white conservative Christians and the occasional Proud Boy.

Bills passed by the Legislature and signed into law take effect 90 days after the end of the session. This year, that’s right now. 

Districts are having to make adjustments on the fly.

Lawmakers should give school boards more time to figure out how to implement policies and cede some authority to local elected officials to get into compliance.

That way the public can have a say. This is the Arizona Legislature. What am I thinking? Only the GOP base gets a say.

Local government shouldn’t shotgun policies like college sophomores drink beer. It has the feel of cutting the public out of the process at the local level.  

Check out how the Amphi school district begins the discussion of teaching about controversy: “Democratic tradition often involves dealing with controversial issues. Knowledge and understanding of such issues are an indispensable part of education.”

One could say the same thing about the people’s right to know and self-governance.

Rio No-Post-O

Speaking of which, the Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Board is meeting this week but is continuing with its habit of not posting the agenda until the last possible minute — a practice that doesn’t quite comply with the spirit of Arizona’s open-meeting laws.

State law says agendas must be published 24 hours ahead of the board’s 9 a.m. Tuesday meeting. But facilities districts, and Rio Nuevo is one of those, don’t have to post on their websites (in the old days, government could just dump in agenda in a basket on a counter someplace and comply).

Still, the idea of self governance is to inform the public.

My bigger issue is the vague and pro-forma style of the agenda – clearly designed to create maximum efficiency – at the expense of specifics.

The District Board meeting Tuesday will consist of a series of executive sessions and then action on the matters discussed behind closed doors. 

They will discuss the Box Yard on Broadway restaurant, the Playground restaurant, Borderlands Brewery, Sunshine Mile, the Tucson Convention Center, the “Z-Street” property and a lot at 340 N. 1st Ave. Then board members will entertain a request from the Downtown Business Partnership for more money.

Here’s how the board repeatedly informs the public about the nature of their actions on item after item, copy-and-paste style:

“The Board will hear about and discuss the status of this project. Based upon such discussion the Board may vote to take action, which action could include directing staff and/or counsel to draft and finalize any and all agreements necessary to implement the Board’s desires and authorizing the executive officers to execute such agreements.”

That’s typical language for acting on an issue discussed in executive session but just about everything they are doing is after the executive sessions. They’re coming off a little vague.

Whenever I’ve had questions, Board Chairman Fletcher McCusker has answered them with polite professionalism. But the point of this long-winded weekly columns is to summarize and flesh out what governments are presenting to the people, as presented, for action. I’m happy to translate it into English. 

Not everybody should have to call McCusker to get what we Gen Xers used to call “the low down.” He’s a busy guy. The government is supposed to have open meetings, and part of that is telling people what’s going to be discussed and voted on, before that happens.


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