But Democrat Karin Uhlich, who hopes to unseat Republican Kathleen Dunbar in northside Ward 3, recently pointed out to us that last year, the city borrowed $20 million for street repaving and $5 million for new sidewalks. That money will have to be repaid, along with roughly $15 million in interest, from general-fund revenues over the next 18 years, according to Tucson Finance Director Scott Douthitt.
Douthitt projects the city will be paying about $1.6 million annually over the next decade and about $2.4 million annually for the eights years after that.
So the big question is: Was it a good decision to borrow that money to repave the streets and build sidewalks, knowing that future councils would be stuck with the tab?
Dunbar--who, incidently, was quite upset to discover that vandals had scrawled the word "hole" across her photo on one of her campaign billboards last weekend--and Ward 6 Republican Fred Ronstadt, who is facing Democrat Nina Trasoff, both say it was smart financing. They argue that the work was desperately needed and that by doing it now, they would beat the rising costs of construction. Plus, Tucson's drivers get to drive on better streets.
The Democrats are more elusive. Both dodge the direct question of whether it was a good idea to borrow the money to fix the streets. Trasoff and Uhlich agree the work needed to be done, but they argue that impact fees should have paid for it, if such a thing were possible.
Uhlich says she's "not convinced" the borrowing "would have been necessary had we adopted appropriate impact fees."
Trasoff says she disagrees with the premise of the question of whether it was a good idea. "I'm not being evasive," she says. "I'm looking at somebody who has been in office for seven years. Why did it get to this point? I'd ask my Democratic colleagues as well, because it's not just Fred."
Ronstadt boasted that establishing a trash-collection fee had freed up $20 million in the general fund to pay for 100 new cops and 70 new firefighters. He then made the leap that Trasoff's vow to eliminate the trash fee, combined with her promise to the Pima County Interfaith Council to spend an additional $10 million annually on programs for families and kids, would mean the city would have to lay off those new public-safety employees.
"It's very simple: Nina has promised to cut the funds we are using to invest in public safety," Ronstadt said. "You cannot cut the fee without firing the police officers and firefighters it paid for."
Ronstadt continued to press the point the following night at a candidate forum sponsored by the morning daily. He repeatedly knocked Trasoff for failing to explain how she would fill the $30 million hole she had dug in the city budget. At one point, Ronstadt even produced a poster of a fundraising thermometer to highlight the financial gap.
"There is a $30 million deficit that she refuses to address or acknowledge: the $20 million that she has promised to cut and now $10 million in additional promises in spending," Ronstadt said in his speech. "Where will the $30 million come from? She won't tell us. She refuses to answer the question. She refuses to tell us her plan."
Trasoff responded last week with an endorsement from Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik--one of Pima County's most popular politicians--and a promise to never cut public safety.
Trasoff still says the trash fee should be repealed and that she supports working toward PCIC's request of increasing spending on social programs by $10 million, but says the city will get to neither goal overnight.
Trasoff says her main beef with the trash fee is that by using the money to pay for the costs of garbage collection, the city freed up money in the general fund to pay for more cops and firefighters. She calls the financial maneuver a "shell game."
She says she might support some kind of general-services tax, but she objects to the trash fee "because it's called a garbage tax, and that's not really what they're doing. It is to free up money for other things. Why not do an other-things tax?"
Ronstadt counters that the trash fee--or "environmental services fee," as he calls it--is a standard financing mechanism used in cities in Western states.
Trasoff proposed another budget-balancing idea last week: a "hiring chill" that would allow the city to reduce nonessential staff.
"Maybe we're overstaffed," Trasoff says. "And I am not suggesting layoffs. I am not suggesting salary freezes or salary decreases. But through natural attrition, should we be looking at a hiring chill? So we look at nonessential personnel."
Trasoff says she's not willing to say which city employees are nonessential yet.
"It's really a new direction," she says.
The GOP still leads in returns, but that's not saying much, because there's plenty of time for Democrats to get their ballots in. About 35 percent of Republicans who have requested early ballots have returned them, compared to 25 percent of Democrats.
Order your early ballot before Friday, Oct. 28, by calling 884-VOTE.
If you're interested in seeing all the candidates debate, last week's Star forum is now showing on Access Tucson. To find out what tattoos the candidates would get, tune in to Channel 74 on Comcast or 99 on Cox at 8 p.m. any evening between Thursday, Oct. 27, and Sunday, Oct. 30, or Saturday, Nov. 5, through Monday, Nov. 7.
On Prop 100, which would raise the annual salary of the mayor from $42,000 to $52,080 and the annual salary of council members from $24,000 to $29,760: No.
On Prop 400, which would raise the city's spending limit for four years: Yes. Hey, what can we say? We're tax-and-spenders!