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Balancing Act 

Republicans running for the Tucson City Council complain about how the Dems are spending money—but they don't have many specific cuts of their own

Politicians love to talk about waste in government.

Take Republican Steve Kozachik. He says his Democratic opponent, Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, should have cut more spending in the city's $420 million general fund, and that she should have hired more cops and firefighters during this year's budget deliberations.

On his Web page, Kozachik complains: "The mayor and council will not lead in cutting unnecessary subsidies to outside agencies or squeeze even 2 percent of the fat from the city budget to fully fund public safety."

But offer Kozachik a list of the city's spending on those "unnecessary subsidies to outside agencies," and he gets all weak in the knees. He doesn't want to look over the list, because he says he's already familiar with it. Ask him to cite something—anything—he'd cut, and he declines.

"That's part of a budgetary conversation, not a line-by-line conversation," says Kozachik, who suggests the city should hand off outside-agency funding to a nonprofit agency, so council members don't get to say where tax dollars are going, "because that's a vote-buying issue."

Republican Ben Buehler-Garcia, who hopes to unseat Democrat Karin Uhlich, is equally reluctant to review a list of spending on outside agencies.

"I'm not even going to look, because you can't have that conversation just looking at a sheet of paper. I mean, there are clearly things that ... ," Buehler-Garcia says before pausing. "I'm not going to go there."

Buehler-Garcia adds that he generally supports funding for social-service programs that help the homeless and the elderly, but that "in difficult economic times, you have to set priorities."

Republican Shaun McClusky, who is facing Democrat Richard Fimbres in the race to replace the retiring Steve Leal in Ward 5, is the only Republican in the race who embraces the opportunity to look over the outside-agency budget. He warns that there will be blood if he's elected.

"We're going to have to do cuts across the board, and we're going to have to do deep cuts," McClusky says.

In particular, McClusky would cut the $718,000 that the city now spends on public-access television and make an effort to lease out the channel space. (Whether Cox Cable would allow such a sublease remains unknown, but McClusky figures it's worth finding out.) He'd also cut some of the $1.1 million in funding for TREO, the economic-development agency that's funded by local governments and businesses.

"They're supposed to encourage economic development in Tucson," McClusky says. "I really haven't seen a whole lot of that, with our sales-tax revenues being depleted by $68 million."

McClusky's pair of specific cuts aside, all three Republicans struggle to say how their spending priorities would be different from the current council's priorities, other than to say they'd spend more on public safety and pothole repairs.

In fact, they're urging voters to ensure that the city has to spend significantly more money on public safety. All three Republicans have embraced Proposition 200, the Public Safety First Initiative that would force the city to spend an additional $63 million a year on police officers and firefighters once it's fully implemented in five years, according to estimates from the city's Independent Audit and Performance Commission.

However, they don't come up with savings within the city's budget to pay for it; instead, they suggest that with the right economic policies, small businesses can thrive and provide enough sales taxes to pay for the initiative.

But the city's budget projections aren't so rosy. City Manager Mike Letcher has projected that the city will have to cut at least $12.6 million more in spending next year, $10.2 million in fiscal year 2012, and $6.4 million in fiscal year 2013 before the city's budget stabilizes.

Over that same time period, the Public Safety First Initiative—if it passes—is expected to cost the city an additional $46.6 million.

Buehler-Garcia says he hasn't had an opportunity to dig into the city budget; Kozachik says he has unsuccessfully tried to make sense of it, but he concluded that it's just too complicated.

"It shouldn't be this hard," says Kozachik.

It's certainly not unusual for candidates to complain about the budget priorities of incumbents, particularly in tough economic times. Both Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich did the same thing when they were running for office four years ago.

In fact, Kozachik uses the exact same words to describe the budget that Trasoff used four years ago. The billion-dollar budget, with money coming from myriad sources, is a "shell game."

In 2005, Trasoff and Uhlich complained that the Republicans then in office—Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar—deserved to be kicked out, because they had established a $12-a-month trash fee, raised the cost of Parks and Recreation classes, and created fees for the KIDCO after-school program. Both said they'd try to reduce the "garbage tax," because it had been set too high.

Four years after beating Ronstadt and Dunbar, both Trasoff and Uhlich have done little to change what the Republicans put in place. They have supported not reducing, but increasing the monthly trash fee by 50 cents (although they also made it easier for people to apply for a waiver to not pay it). They never did anything to reduce KIDCO fees, which run $100 for the school year and $75 for the summer session. (KIDCO also offers a sliding-scale discount for those who have trouble paying even a few dollars a day.)

Right after they were sworn into office in 2005, however, Uhlich and Trasoff did join the other Democrats on the City Council to vote to reverse the increases on Parks and Rec fees for adult-leisure classes, leagues in sports such as softball and basketball, and swimming-pool admissions.

That was easy enough when the economy was doing well. In fact, during Trasoff and Uhlich's first few years, the city had enough money—thanks, in major part, to the "garbage tax"—to hire 80 new police officers, 75 new firefighters and support staff for those departments. The Transportation Department also managed to repave hundreds of miles of residential streets.

But when it came time to cut the budget this year, the city had to put a halt to expanding the police and fire staff, and had to curtail the repair of residential streets.

Parks and Recreation Director Fred Gray was forced to cut staff, eliminate about half of the sports leagues and leisure classes, cut back the hours of recreation centers and close several pools for the winter. Gray is now putting together a new plan to hike the fees that Trasoff and Uhlich lowered, and the council members say they lean toward supporting the increases.

"I think I have a better sense of the long view now," Uhlich says. "It's not that people don't want the service available. ... If they can afford to pay more, they're willing to pay more."

On this topic, their Republican opponents agree. Kozachik and Buehler-Garcia say that park fees do need to go up as part of a budget-balancing plan.

But Kozachik and Buehler-Garcia are more critical of the steps that Trasoff and Uhlich took to balance the budget after the economic slowdown left the city facing a $68 million shortfall in this budget year.

The council trimmed city spending by reducing the number of employees through attrition and by asking everyone, with the exception of cops and firefighters, to take a one-week unpaid furlough. They also refinanced some debt and took advantage of some other one-time windfalls.

But they were still facing a budget gap, so Trasoff and Uhlich supported a plan to raise the taxes on phone, electric and gas bills, and to create new taxes on tanning salons and gym memberships.

The Republicans say those tax hikes were the wrong way to go, but they offer few alternatives in the way of corresponding cuts.

In the end, most voters aren't going to consider the inner workings of the budget when they cast a ballot. They're more likely to be swayed by the national mood.

Four years ago, Trasoff and Uhlich tapped into Democratic anger against the Bush administration. Their attacks on the "garbage tax" and the KIDCO fees that they left in place were really just a way to energize Democrats to come to the polls and kick out Republican incumbents. It helped reverse years of Democratic complacency and Republican success in a city where there are nearly seven Democrats for every four Republicans.

But this year, the national mood has shifted. Republicans are energized by what they see as a socialist takeover by the Obama administration. They're also being spurred on by the idea of supporting cops and firefighters through Prop 200 and are angry about the slow pace and high spending on the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment project.

So it's hardly surprising to see the Republicans beating the drums of fiscal mismanagement.

But voters who are hoping to see big changes in how the city spends dollars shouldn't expect big changes from the Republicans.

Asked if he agrees with how the Democrats have allocated funding for outside agencies, Kozachik says he would do one thing differently: He'd have been more generous to the Humane Society of Southern Arizona.

"I thought it was extremely irresponsible for them to cut the Humane Society budget, because to me, that's a public-health and safety issue," Kozachik says. "That's just wrong."

In other words: Despite his criticism of spending on outside agencies, the only change Kozachik is willing to publicly stand behind involves spending more money.


WARD 3: Karin Uhlich vs. Ben Buehler-Garcia vs. Mary DeCamp

Democrat Karin Uhlich

Karin Uhlich says her biggest accomplishments in her first term include accelerating the collection of impact fees on commercial development, getting key meth ingredients off of pharmacy shelves, and launching a sustainability plan that included funding for more police officers and firefighters, residential street repair and the Parks and Recreation Department.

"The sustainability plan really served as a good guide," says Uhlich, who also serves as executive director of the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reining in the payday-loan industry and helping people establish a firmer financial base.

When the nation's economic slowdown hit the city's budget and cuts had to be made, the city's sustainability plan had to be put on hold. As a result, Uhlich has been under fire by supporters of the Public Safety First Initiative, who complain that she abandoned her promise to fund public safety.

Uhlich says public safety remains a priority, as demonstrated by the fact that cops and firefighters were not asked to take the same five-day furlough as other city employees.

In the fight over balancing this year's budget, Uhlich was one of the biggest supporters of City Manager Mike Letcher's proposal for a tax on rent payments, but the new tax couldn't get enough support among council members to pass.

Uhlich's biggest impact on the city this year was leading the charge to fire Mike Hein, the city manager who the council dismissed on a 4-3 vote in April. Uhlich said that she had lost "trust and confidence" in Hein.

The decision to ax Hein brought criticism from the city's business community, which viewed Hein as a competent manager wrestling with a dysfunctional City Council.

With Mayor Bob Walkup wrapping up his third term next year, Uhlich is rumored to be eyeing the mayor's office. While she downplays that talk publicly, she has said she's not committed to serving out her full four-year term in Ward 3.

"I don't know what doors will open to me in the future, if any," Uhlich says. "I think a lot of people in public office get pulled off track by looking toward whatever ambition might lie ahead. And so I don't do that."

Uhlich has been endorsed by a wide range of Democratic elected officials, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Attorney General Terry Goddard. She's also the pick of several local labor unions, as well as the Sierra Club, Arizonans for Responsible Lending and Arizona Women's Political Caucus.

Republican Ben Buehler-Garcia

Ben Buehler-Garcia says he got into the race for the Ward 3 seat because the city is on the wrong track. He says the level of crime is too high; businesses have to jump through too many hoops; and too many streets have potholes.

"People don't feel safe in their homes and businesses anymore," Buehler-Garcia says.

Buehler-Garcia moved to Tucson to attend the UA and study criminal justice. But he ended up abandoning his plans for a career in law enforcement and instead went to work at the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, where he worked as a spokesman and lobbied various government agencies.

Buehler-Garcia eventually opened up his own consulting business, helping clients negotiate the choppy waters of government.

He's been involved in a wide range of community activities, including efforts to retain Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and spring-training baseball. (Buehler-Garcia says he would have been inclined to spend as much as $20 million on improvements on city-owned Hi Corbett Field in hopes of keeping the Colorado Rockies in Tucson.)

Buehler-Garcia complains that Uhlich sometimes stands in the way of economic-development opportunities. He points out that she was the only council member to vote against an infill-development plan near Kino Parkway and Interstate 10 that would include a UA research park, housing and a big-box store.

Buehler-Garcia's endorsements include the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Tucson Association of Realtors, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, Tucson Police Officers Association, Arizona Builders' Alliance and the Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association.

Green Mary DeCamp

Mary DeCamp wants you to know the good times are over—a little secret the Democrats and Republicans don't want you to know.

"Our planet is changing," DeCamp says. "It's getting warmer all the time. Scientists agree that we are unsustainable. We have got to change our behavior."

DeCamp, who has spent much of her life pursuing higher education or working on the UA campus, says her campaign platforms include retrofitting Tucson homes to be more energy-efficient through an effort that would involve mentors leading neighborhood co-ops; raising water rates, particularly for residents outside of the city; and creating a local currency.

"I think we should limit growth," DeCamp says. "We should take measures to roll back our population so that we're within sustainable limits."

While she adores Uhlich, DeCamp is skeptical about the Democratic incumbent's politics. She complains that Uhlich supports widening Grant Road instead of encouraging more bicycling, and that Uhlich failed to reduce the trash-collection fee established by Republicans.

"She's my favorite one on the council," DeCamp says. "But she's not Green. She hasn't stood up to corporate interests. She does buy into this idea that growth and development can save us."


WARD 5: Richard Fimbres vs. Shaun McClusky

Democrat Richard Fimbres

Richard Fimbres, who grew up in Ward 5 and played football at Tucson High School, credits his parents for inspiring him to pursue a career in public service. His father, a railroad worker with Southern Pacific, and his mother, a homemaker, "taught us to give something back, to pay it forward."

His résumé reflects a long history in public service. He served 27 years in the military, including two years on active duty as a military policeman in the Army. He has worked for the Pima County Sheriff's Department for more than two decades, both as a reserve deputy and a program manager. He headed up the Governor's Office of Highway Safety under Democrat Janet Napolitano.

On the side, Fimbres has been involved in efforts to keep Hispanic kids in school and away from drugs and alcohol, which culminated in a position on the Pima County Community College District governing board.

"We wanted to start planting the seeds with middle school and high school kids that we wanted them to end up in a higher-learning institution, instead of ending up in our jails, in our cemeteries or on the streets."

Those efforts led to Fimbres being named the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce's Man of the Year in 2001, although this year, the chamber has endorsed his Republican opponent.

Fimbres is new to city issues, although his wife, Mary Fimbres, has long worked as an aide to current Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal.

Fimbres says the city needs to pursue more federal stimulus dollars while the economy recovers. He says the road ahead won't be easy for the city.

"These are hard times," Fimbres says. "People are blaming the council for a lot of the economic problems. But the sales tax is tanking, and if you look at every community and every city, it has impacted everybody nationwide."

Fimbres has been endorsed by a wide range of Democratic elected officials, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and outgoing Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal. He's also the pick of several local labor unions and the Sierra Club.

Republican Shaun McClusky

Republican Shaun McClusky doesn't have much of a political pedigree. He hasn't worked on campaigns, lobbied politicians or even voted in a city election.

He's countering his lack of involvement by saying that he's not "a career politician."

McClusky's career path has followed a different trail. A Chicago native, McClusky has worked at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Country Club in Florida, served a four-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, sold cars for Jim Click and now runs his own real-estate brokerage and property-management company, Rincon Ventures.

McClusky, who was recruited through a mass recorded phone message that the Pima County Republican Party sent to Republicans in Ward 5, says he got into the race "so we can change the path the city has been traveling on."

Like his fellow Republicans, McClusky criticizes the council for failing to spend more money on police officers, firefighters and street repairs. He says that the city has wasted money on downtown redevelopment and should save more money by turning off the lights at city facilities like the Tucson Convention Center.

His own budget prescriptions often sound a little bizarre, such as his vow to cut corporate income taxes, which the city does not collect.

In September, McClusky said that the city had enough money in its budget to pay for more cops and firefighters without significant cuts or tax hikes. But last week, he said the city would have to make deep cuts across the board to balance next year's budget.

McClusky's endorsements include the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Tucson Association of Realtors, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, Tucson Police Officers Association, Arizona Builders' Alliance and the Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association.


WARD 6: Nina Trasoff vs. Steve Kozachik

Democrat Nina Trasoff

As she finishes her first term on the Tucson City Council, Democrat Nina Trasoff says her experience as a TV newswoman has helped her "to listen and to ask questions. I think one of my greatest skills is the ability to ask questions and to think outside the box."

But her public-relations background hasn't helped her spin a better view of downtown redevelopment as projects have collapsed—most notably, a planned science center and other cultural attractions on the west bank of the Santa Cruz River, and more recently, a complex land swap around the Rialto Theatre block. State lawmakers have begun asking tough questions about how the city has spent $160 million in Rio Nuevo dollars.

Trasoff says she unfairly gets a bad rap on Rio Nuevo. She points to projects like the Fourth Avenue underpass, progress with the urban streetcar, new restaurants such as Maynards in the Historic Train Depot, the rehabilitation of the One North Fifth apartment building, ongoing construction on new public housing and apartment buildings, and the leasing of the MacArthur Building to Madden Publishing.

She says the work now underway at the Tucson Convention Center is the first step toward building a downtown hotel that will allow Tucson to keep the Gem and Mineral Show and host new conventions.

As she looks back over her four years of representing midtown's Ward 6, Trasoff is most proud of "making sure that the door is always open to people of all persuasions to share their views."

As an example, Trasoff cites her work with the business community on an update of the city's land-use code.

She's found an unlikely ally in Michael Guymon, who served as chief of staff to Fred Ronstadt, the Republican councilman defeated by Trasoff in 2005.

Guymon, who is now executive director of the Metropolitan Pima Alliance, says that Trasoff's office has helped rework the process of rehabbing old buildings for new uses.

"The experience has been very positive," says Guymon. "It's really their willingness to sit down with a lot of the property owners and business owners to come up with viable solutions to fix this problem."

Trasoff has been endorsed by a wide range of Democratic elected officials, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. She's also the pick of several local labor unions, as well as the Sierra Club, Arizona Multihousing Association and Arizona Women's Political Caucus.

Republican Steve Kozachik

Steve Kozachik can't really say where he first got the bug to do charity work.

"I don't know what got me to want to do it," Kozachik says. "When something grabs you that's bigger than yourself, you don't let go of it."

Over the last decade, Kozachik has built orphanages in Zambia. He's constructed homes in tsunami-ravaged Sri Lanka. He's driven relief supplies into Baton Rouge in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

"It's so much more meaningful than the stuff we normally focus on," Kozachik says.

But Kozachik is not very charitable while talking about Nina Trasoff, the Democrat he hopes to unseat in November.

He says Trasoff has alienated the business community. He points out that she didn't follow through on her promise to voters to get rid of the monthly trash-collection fee that former Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt put into place. And she's botched the redevelopment of downtown, he says.

"Nina Trasoff asked to be the queen of Rio Nuevo," Kozachik says. "Just like she told Fred Ronstadt that she was going to hang the garbage fee like a collar around his neck—she can wear this thing like a necklace if she wants to. It has been an absolute failure."

Kozachik, who works for the UA Athletics Department and oversaw the recent construction of the Richard Jefferson Gymnasium and the Hillenbrand Aquatics Center east of McKale Center, says he knows what needs to be done with Rio Nuevo money downtown: The city should foster more charter schools, university-student housing and a youth-sports facility.

Kozachik is ready to scrap plans for a new enclosed arena to replace the aging Tucson Convention Center facility and predicts that the city's plans to build a new hotel downtown are doomed.

"That thing is never going to get built," Kozachik says.

Kozachik's endorsements include the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Tucson Association of Realtors, Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, Tucson Police Officers Association, Arizona Builders' Alliance and the Southern Arizona Lodging and Resort Association.


The Outside Agency Budget: What Would You Cut?

The city of Tucson is spending $12.2 million of its $420 million general fund this year on so-called outside agencies—nonprofit groups and organizations that generally fall outside of the city's core services of police, fire, parks and transportation. The funding was approved by current council members Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich, who reduced the funding by 10 percent last year and 15 percent in the current budget year.

The Republicans haven't shared many cuts that they'd make. Steve Kozachik shared one change with us: He'd spend more on the Humane Society. Ben Buehler-Garcia declined to mention any cuts. Shaun McClusky says he'd cut funding to Access Tucson and TREO, and trim funding to some of the festivals.

How about you, citizen? How much would you cut to provide more money to cops, firefighters and pothole repair?

Arts and cultural enrichment $711,680
El Centro Cultural de las Americas $9,140
Tucson Botanical Gardens $41,120
Tucson Children’s Museum $35,640
Tucson Museum of Art $65,240
Tucson Pops Orchestra $22,820
Tucson Sister Cities Association $12,190
Tucson-Pima Arts Council $525,530
Civic/special community events $318,320
El Tour/Perimeter Bicycling Association of America $22,820
Southern Arizona Regional Science and Engineering Fair $9,510
Tucson Gem and Mineral Society $27,420
Downtown Parade of Lights $4,200
Downtown Tucson Partnership event marketing $32,720
Fiesta Grande $13,450
Fort Lowell Soccer Shootout $10,410
Juneteenth Festival $14,320
Tucson Meet Yourself $13,500
Tucson-Pima Arts Council Studio Arts Tour $10,000
Tucson Rodeo Parade $70,000
Winterhaven Festival of Lights $60,300
Contingency $29,670
Economic and workforce development $6,637,720
Critical Path Institute $158,440
Downtown Tucson Partnership $280,020
JobPath $380,250
Metropolitan Tucson Convention Visitors Bureau $4,036,350
Pro Neighborhoods $68,450
Schools Plus Jobs $471,510
Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities $1,242,700
Human services $2,043,820
88-CRIME $12,610
Community Mediation Program (Our Family Services) $41,700
Human Services Plan $1,882,570
Humane Society of Southern Arizona $13,710
Metropolitan Education Commission $53,870
Pima County-Tucson Women’s Commission $39,360
Other $847,150
Access Tucson $758,740
YMCA $88,410
Payments to other governments $1,641,310
Pima Animal Control Center $1,315,890
Pima Association of Governments $298,000
Victim Witness $27,420

More by Jim Nintzel

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