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THE BER-ILIAD

Sing, oh muse, the whimper of Grimaldi, product of Esposito, onetime son-in-law to Lena, full-time mortal of the Pima County Gods, the deathly slowness of Environmental Quality, the crashing speed and obsequious compliance of the City Council to rezone for the King, Don Diamond, and the Prince, Robert Sarver, for authority to build a little city just outside the high walls of beryllium-producer Brush Wellman.

With apologies to Homer: Pima County is taking longer to update an air-quality permit for Brush Ceramic Products than the 10 years it took the long-haired Achaeans to sack Troy.

Richard Grimaldi, point man for the Pima County Department of Environmental Quality, may be as buff as Brad Pitt, the Hollywood Achilles, but he also, sadly, is on par in wits. Brush Wellman, which produces components for high-tech and electrical components, is operating on an air quality permit that was to be renewed in 1994. The material Brush makes contains beryllium oxide, a toxic substance linked to the death of a former Brush Ceramic Products worker in Tucson and illness of more than 30 others, from chronic beryllium disease.

Grimaldi and his former boss, David Esposito, also recently retired from the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, wrung hands over Brush Ceramic and beryllium, but consistently issued reports saying the company complied with air-quality standards.

But in February 1994, Brush fessed up that beryllium oxide, the fatal-in-tiny-doses stuff, was found outside the plant's dust-collection system.

Since then, at the campus of Sunnyside High School a half-mile away, and on the former Sarver-then-Diamond property just north of the Brush plant where D.R. Horton Homes plans to build 496 houses, beryllium has been found. Nearly everyone--Brush execs, company consultants, developers, Sunnyside consultants, and Grimaldi and his colleagues--downplay the findings. What is found, they say, has not been shown to not be the harmless, naturally occurring beryllium.

Brush has another formidable defender, one that not even Achilles or Odysseus was forced to confront: Linda Lopez, of the Sunnyside School Board and a Democratic member of the state House of Representatives. Brush is safe. She knows. She showered there. Brush and D.R. Horton also have Yolanda Herrera, goddess of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, on their side. She likes Brush, partly because the company sent some people to a Sunnyside Neighborhood cleanup. She raged more at the proposed strip joint, Club Turbulence, near the airport, than she has about beryllium.

Sunnyside has spent $67,341 on monitors and tests in the last three years. Besides Sunnyside High and district headquarters and transportation facilities, the school district has two elementary schools, Los Amigos and Ocotillo, that are about 1,000 meters from Brush.

Three blowout hearings have been staged on Brush Wellman and beryllium since 1999. Each time, officials promise action. Each time, there is none. Residents deserve more, particularly from highly paid, terribly slow Grimaldi,who is paid $91,000 a year and who got his start in the county army through his connection to the late Sam Lena, a benevolent Kronos of Pima County, and a fierce defender of his southside constituents. Residents also deserve more from Esposito's permanent successor, Ursula Kramer, who is paid $106,142 a year.


ROLLOVER

Wildly outraged over Pima County's hurly-burly contract system, the editors of the Arizona Daily Star three years ago dispatched the paper's top reporters, Joe Burchell and Rhonda Bodfield, to uncover the political patronage (shocking!) and then set in motion the reforms.

The dynamic duo, who are the Waylon Jennings and Shania Twain of local journalism, managed to portray county procurement--especially in road design, engineering and construction--as terribly corrupt and wasteful.

Burchell and Bodfield particularly targeted rollover contracts, those that were approved at seemingly low figures only to be amended repeatedly, and as-needed contracts that also were repeatedly renewed. The Star found experts to say the county was unique in these types of contracts and, essentially, that only backwards or corrupt governments and the adept vendors with expedient political connections made use of them.

And just as the two were crafting their series, the advertising wizards at Tucson Newspapers Inc.--the company owned by the Star and the Tucson Citizen--were lining up to get Board of Supervisors approval to rollover an as-needed advertising contract for another year.

Greedy TNI initially soaked county taxpayers $250,000 for the first contract approved in April 2000. It has been rolled over, er, amended for AS NEEDED advertising seven times for an eye-popping increase to $3.28 million.

The contract, incidentally, was never put out to bid.


BILL OF WRONGS

One lousy idea actually didn't make it through the Arizona Legislature this year: The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, as it's known around the Capitol, went down in flames on the House floor last week, losing 35-22.

A favorite bill of conservatives,TABOR would ask voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the state budget to grow only by the rate of inflation, as adjusted for population growth.

While it sounds like a swell idea at first glance, TABOR is another disastrous move that, like so many other "reforms" in recent years, would just strip more power away from elected officials and further screw up the state.

For starters, it assumes that the state's current spending takes care of all of Arizona's needs. You can argue that it does, we suppose, but given our ranking in education spending alone, we remain skeptical that's the case.

Then there are the actual consequences of TABOR, as seen in Colorado, where a similar measure passed a few years ago. Colorado had to scale back its state budget when facing a recession; now that a recovery is underway, the baseline for growth has been based on budgets passed during the lean years. So although tax revenues are pouring back into the state's coffers, more than $450 million has to be refunded to taxpayers, while lawmakers still have to cut $263 million in programs and services, according to State Legislatures magazine.

That's because, like Arizona, education costs are locked into a formula that drives regular increases. To make up for that bigger slice, other areas are facing cuts--resulting in choices such as kicking elderly patients out of nursing homes or cranking up tuition at public universities.

Colorado's budget problems have gotten so bad that voters turned out the GOP in last year's election, giving Democrats control of both the House and Senate.

Say, maybe passing TABOR here wouldn't be such a bad idea in the long run ...


WALKER RUNS?

Republicans may have dug up a candidate to take on Democrat Steve Leal as he seeks a fifth term representing southside Ward 5. Vernon Walker filed a statement of organization with the City Clerk's office last week.

Judi White, chair of the Pima County Republican Party, tells us another candidate may yet emerge, but she's not naming names yet. Oddly, she wasn't even willing to mention Walker's name, even though he's formally filed.


TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN

Yuri Downing, the one-time Libertarian candidate from Maricopa County who recently pled guilty to perjury in relation to a free-spending campaign with Clean Elections dollars, is a wanted man.

Judge Jeffrey Hotham of Maricopa County Superior Court issued a warrant for Downing's arrest last Wednesday, March 16, after Assistant Attorney General E.G. Noyes informed the court of his "continuing willful violations of his release conditions."

Downing, the son of Rep. Ted Downing of Tucson, got in trouble with the law after he decided to run for the Arizona Senate. He persuaded two buddies to run for the House of Representatives, forming a Libertarian ticket that had no chance of actually winning office.

Still, because they managed to qualify for Clean Elections dollars, the three received about $100,000 in public money for their campaigns. A good chunk ended up being spent at Scottsdale nightclubs and other hotspots, which the candidates explained was part of their effort to reach out to new voters.

But Clean Elections officials weren't much amused by the trio's unorthodox campaigning and ordered them to repay the money. Downing's pals eventually agreed to reimburse the program on an installment plan; an anonymous benefactor bailed them out last year.

But Downing vowed to fight the commission, saying his campaign was totally legitimate. Once the Attorney General's Office got involved, however, Downing decided he didn't want his day in court after all. He pled guilty to perjury just before Christmas last year.

Downing's sentencing was scheduled for Jan. 26, but his attorney filed a motion requesting a continuance, saying Downing "is experiencing a mental crisis." Judge Hotham agreed to postpone the hearing, but ordered Downing to undergo drug and alcohol monitoring with Pretrial Services.

But Downing failed to report to pretrial services and, according to papers filed with the court, "had not submitted to drug testing, and ... said he would not do it because he would test positive for drugs."

Noyes asked for the arrest warrant late last month because Downing's "apparently drug-using, deteriorating, increasingly desperate condition" and "his expressed fear of incarceration" made him a flight risk.

AG spokeswoman Andrea Esquer said she didn't know if Downing had been apprehended as of earlier this week, but said he was scheduled to be sentenced Friday, March 25.


OFF TRACK

Now that we've gussied up that downtown train depot, will we have any trains stopping at it? President George Bush's budget has cut the current federal subsidy for Amtrak right down to zero, which would force the rail operation to scale back service to lines that make a profit.

Last week, Arizona's two senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, voted to reject spending $1.4 billion to keep Amtrak alive. If that stands, only the profitable routes on the East Coast and California will remain alive.

Maybe that will solve one problem downtown: The Greyhound Bus terminal can move right into the depot!

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