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CHILDREN'S CRUSADE: Back when George Miller was Tucson's mayor, the State of the City address was a pretty lame affair with the suits cruising to the Doubletree Hotel for some rubber chicken with a side of tepid Babbitry.

Things have come a long way under Bob Walkup, who drew a standing-room-only crowd to his third State of the City speech last week. The assorted elected officials, civic leaders, city staff and well-dressed political operatives were treated to a multimedia affair complete with a military color guard, performing schoolchildren and computer animation on the Jumbotron screens.

Congressman Jim Kolbe made a special guest appearance, delivering a speech about terrorism and security, but proved to be a weak opening act--kinda like Concrete Blonde opening for Sting--and found himself mostly ignored by the power-mingling crowd. No wonder he left early.

But everyone paid attention when Big Bob took the stage. While he mentioned the usual suspects--water, Rio Nuevo, the upcoming budget crunch--Walkup's central message centered on the May ballot issue, which would boost transportation spending by about $40 million a year by hiking the sales tax by a half-cent per dollar.

With the fancy computer graphics, it was a great sales pitch. Come May, we'll see if voters, who have been picky consumers when it comes to boosting sales tax for transportation, are buying.

Walkup tried to toss a bone toward light-rail advocates, who have announced they'll oppose the plan because it spends only 18 percent on public transit. But Walkup seemed to be more interested in discrediting them, saying he shared "their vision, but not their priorities" and accusing them of trying to spend millions on a light-rail system at the expense of poor little children who have no sidewalks.

The morning daily jumped in the next day with glowing congratulations to a mayor who "has much to crow about." The paper praised Walkup for choosing the needs of our children over a "futuristic light-rail system."

The words reached Steve Farley, a leader of Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation, all the way back in Ohio, where he's currently serving a couple of months as a artist-in-residence. The graphic designer fired off an e-mail to his membership that included a copy of a letter he'd sent to the Star blasting them for setting up a false choice between the kiddies and public transit.

"The city's plan wants to spend -- money on three scattered grade-separated interchanges which will cost tens of millions of dollars, the destruction of businesses and homes, and simply push the congestion problem one intersection over in all four directions," Farley wrote. "I want to hear someone from the city explain how that will meet 'present-day children's needs.' "

Farley says he's happy that the mayor and council are promising to proceed with a rail study this March, but was disappointed by the mayor's rhetoric in the speech.

"It was dispiriting, because I thought we might have a well-reasoned public debate about the issues," Farley says.

Meanwhile, we hear other opponents of the sales tax proposal are planning to go to court this week, alleging officials are violating the city charter's voter-approved Neighborhood Protection Amendment by failing to list the cost and design of each of the planned grade-separated interchanges separately on the ballot. See ya in court!


MARRIOTT REWARDS: Can't much blame the developers of a Starr Pass Marriott Hotel for seeking city annexation, if only for protection from the tax-and-spend Northwest Fire District. Why should a 550-room hotel--bigger than the Westin La Paloma and Loews Ventana Canyon--be subjected to a property tax more than twice as high as the city's?

Northwest, with management and a governing board that combine a kiddie sandbox with a rogue boys' locker room, will lose a 550-room property that could be pushing $100 million. Ha. Northwest deserves the loss.

City property taxes are $1.12 per $100, or $112 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home. Northwest's property taxes are $2.43, or $243 for a similarly valued home. And in the city, Marriott will get better service from Tucson Fire Department, provided there are no gay guests at one of the bars, plus Tucson police and an occasional street sweeping. If they stay out of the city and fail to secede from Northwest Fire, they are looking at a huge tax bill in the high six figures and possibly even $1 million, depending on how high the new hotel is valued. Why should Marriott subsidize Northwest Fire Chief Jeff Piechura and Northwest's crummy deals with Dogpatch, er, Marana?

But let's look at some resorts to get a bigger picture.

Westin's garish La Paloma, which cost three members of the Board of Supervisors their jobs in 1984, has 487 rooms and is on the tax rolls for $61 million. Throw in another $355,372 for the golf course and Westin will have to cough up more than $2.2 million in property taxes this year. Wisely, none of that will go to directly to a fire district, although $7,000 will go into the countywide Fire District Assistance and Northwest, although it is just one of 17 fire districts in Pima County, will take $1,750 of it. (Hey, gotta pay for those lunches and flowers with something.) If operators of "The Dove" were stupid enough to join Northwest Fire District, they would have to pay $372,774. Ouch!

To the east, the 398-room Loews Ventana is valued for tax purposes at $52.46 million. Property taxes will total $1.86 million. Here's an interesting aside: Pima County will get $731,733 of that. If Loews' chief executive got hit in the head by a golf ball and decided to join Piechura's play fire department, it would cost the Ventana $314,677 this year.

The Marriott's big local property, the 250-room University Park near the University of Arizona's Main Gate, is on the tax rolls for $17.5 million. It will pay $759,126 in property taxes, mostly to Pima County and equally troubled and mismanaged Tucson Unified School District. Marriott's city tax bill is $45,508. If it were in Northwest, that bill would hit $106,312 just for fire service. Get the picture?

And what is Pat Quinn, Northwest's doofus board chairman, going to do? Will he protest the Marriott decision? How? Will he badmouth TFD, where he has mysteriously risen to captain?


HOLD ON, ENRON: Auditors from Arizona's illustrious newspapers and fish-hack headquarters, The Associated Press, descended on the dolts that run local cop shops and government agencies with public records requests and found the all-too-unsurprising result that Junior is too busy stuffing his face with donuts to kick out a police report. Lord knows our recent requests to the Tucson Police Department have been met with contempt and delays.

But, of course, the reporters and editors, some bright and some who have never done a bit of this work day in and day out, had to be pretentious and call themselves "auditors." Lots of room at Arthur Andersen, we hear.

We were relieved to see that the editorial page people at the Arizona Daily Star had the brains to highlight the shoe-leather work done by Smilin' Joe Burchell, who in his 22nd year busted City Hall and its potted-plant City Council recently for nodding and smiling while the Iagos who actually run the place out of the City Attorney's Office illegally made another payoff to an innocent wrongfully blasted by a cop.


THE ENCORE: Won't be Enron, it seems, but a brilliantly planned and similarly executed exposé on fingernail care. One day after the auditors' series wrapped up, the Star, under the direction of Jane "Tutti" Amari (Toot-Amari, for short), sought out volunteers for a nail product test. "Do you have short, stubby fingernails that you can't seem to get to grow?" the Star plaintively asked in a horrible admission of waste of time, resources and newsprint. Only five lucky people will be chosen to help investigative reporter Elyssa Andrus compile this report. Extra! Extra!


ACADEMIC ARGUMENT: Those insightful Star scriveners opined last week in favor of a bill that would deny driving licenses to kids who drop out of school. The morning dishrag sees the bill as quite the magic bullet, noting that "West Virginia adopted the law in 1993. Four years later, its dropout rate decreased from 16 percent to 2.7 percent."

Tarnation! That amazing drop sent us scurrying to the West Virginia Department of Ed Web site to learn more about how this law managed to transform Appalachian academic attitudes.

But we noticed a little footnote regarding the drop-out rates the Star cited: "To comply with federal reporting procedures, the method of calculating the dropout rate changed in 1996-1997; thus, previous years' dropout rates are not comparable."

Never mind --


DING-A-LINGS: Here's another reason we love the morning daily: Last week, the editorial staff expressed outrage over what it called the "thoroughly obnoxious telemarketing industry."

Does that include Tucson Newspapers Inc.? The Star's printing/distribution partner has been relentlessly bombarding us with telephoned sales pitches for discount rates for new subscribers even though they've been throwing the paper in the bushes at our midtown bureau for two years now. That's the kind of thing we call "interrupting the tranquility" of our homes. Not only do they call while we're watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but they're pitching a product we've already purchased.


AIRLINE INSECURITY: The jet-setting Skinny recently boarded an El Al plane at JFK headed for a top-secret mission to the Middle East.

After passing through the Israeli airline's tight security check, we began flipping through a duty-free shopping catalog we found in the seat pocket in front of us.

Imagine our surprise when we came across the Swiss Card, a high-quality VICTORINOX product that melds the convenient shape of a credit card with the utility of a Swiss Army knife--namely, a letter opener, ballpoint pen, nail file, screwdriver, tweezers, scissors and, of course, a toothpick. We assumed the catalogue was simply outdated; surely they were no longer selling the Swiss Army Card aboard a plane in the sky.

But when we asked the flight attendant if the Swiss Army card was still available, the stewardess handed us one and asked simply, "Will you be paying in dollars or shekels?"

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