B y E m i l F r a n z i
THE LEAST LIKELY place to find a politician acting like a statesman is on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. When the supervisors passed the county's final budget on August 11, the GOP majority on the board and the county bureaucracy were outnumbered--by Democratic Supervisor Dan Eckstrom.
The other Democrat on the board, Supervisor Raul Grijalva, provided Eckstrom with back-up, but it was clearly Eckstrom's show. He overwhelmed the entire proceeding with his technical mastery of what local government is all about.
County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry had made an earlier attempt at presenting a budget to the supervisors. In that go-round he'd proposed cutting law enforcement and imposing a sales tax--all in an effort to force a dysfunctional board to come up with spending priorities. He failed. So on August 11, Huckelberry basically presented his own priorities, with most of the law enforcement cuts restored.
The budget hearings themselves were chaotic. They started with a parade of law enforcement officials--County Attorney Steve Neely, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik and Juvenile Court Judge Nanette Warner. There was no order set for speakers, nor was the process broken down into specific areas.
Two things were clear from the questions asked by board members--that law enforcement officials were going to get most of what they wanted, and that certain supes had private quirks.
Supervisor Paul Marsh, a Republican, wanted to know why they couldn't house juvenile offenders in tents. (Legal ramifications aside, it's never occurred to him what that would do to the folks who have to guard prisoners.) And Supervisor Ed Moore, also a Republican, tried to up the ante beyond what Huckelberry put back, but when pushed, Moore admitted he planned to vote against the entire budget because it contained some "waste"--like funding for Kino Hospital.
Another major issue discussed was employee pay packages. Huckelberry had included both cost-of-living and merit increases in his proposed budget. Boyd objected to cost-of-living raises, so, should he be re-elected, we'll expect him not to take the 25 percent raise the legislature recently gave elected county officials.
The union representative who spoke on behalf of county employees was totally inadequate--he failed even to remind the board that on July 1 most workers had been socked with higher dependant insurance costs and a bigger bite from the feds, necessitating a cost-of-living increase just to stay even. Eckstrom pointed out the county and AFSCME (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) don't even have a meet-and-confer agreement--it expired and both sides are still working on it. Now you know why organized labor is in the pits.
As the meeting wore on, Eckstrom emerged as the dominant player. He'd previously landed on Huckelberry and staff--and his colleagues--for what is clearly a flawed process. He had pointed out that the end-of-year reserves had always been about double what was projected, meaning that budgets were as much as $10 million higher than necessary. Huckelberry and staff responded that this increased their "comfort level." He didn't say that it also increased the bureaucracy's power by allowing loose bucks to sit in the county's reserve fund, rather than have that money available for the supervisors to use for contingency actions. It turns out the supes basically were ignorant of their ability to get at such reserves.
Eckstrom called the process user unfriendly and lacking in documentation, thus forcing him to hunt for information. He said we ought to put as much time in on a $600 million budget as we do on a rezoning. He advocated year-round budgeting and a citizen's budget-review committee.
He also caught Huckelberry off guard with a simple specific question: What is the estimated income of Solid Waste Management? Huckelberry conceded the number wasn't in the budget documents. He then deferred to Finance Director Carol Bonchalk, who didn't have a clue about what that number was.
Pushing gamely on, the supervisors then discussed Eckstrom's plan (once again, the only guy with a real agenda) to shift the county's tax burden somewhat off the homeowner and onto business while increasing the state's matching fund contributions in the process. Eckstrom called for switching roughly half of Flood Control District taxes, 20 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, to the lower primary property tax rate.
That morning The Arizona Daily Star had published an editorial protesting Eckstrom's move, calling it "shifty." He responded that if big business could use tax loopholes, why should local governments be precluded? As to objections from his GOP colleagues that the legislature would retaliate, he responded, "I'd like to invite you guys over for a poker game some Friday night. You'd fold every time I bluffed." Of course, Danny, it's hard to play poker with guys who can't remember three of a kind beats two pair.
This discussion was interrupted by the board's attorney, David Dingledine, who advised an executive session. Eckstrom and Grijalva wanted the tax information made public--it appears they're the guys who grasp that taxpayers are their clients--but they relented in the face of a majority vote.
While the board was out, most observers were still wondering what the hell the supes were going to do.
They came back and wandered off onto the addendum for secondary districts--library, fire, Sports Authority, things like that--where the highlight was a single-handed attack on the Sports Authority by a lone citizen, Mary Schuh. She obviously outnumbered them, too, because at one point they dumped the whole Sports Authority budget, with Marsh joining Eckstrom and Grijalva.
Moore went ballistic. Legal advisor Dingeldine pointed out the supes had to pass some budget, but the total was cut by $400,000. Which means if they raise the car rental tax that funds the Sports Authority, they can't spend the money. Final boxscore: little old lady, 1; giant corporate baseball subsidizers, 0.
Bottom line on the bottom line: Eckstrom motioned to add almost every item Huckelberry requested to the final budget, plus another $410,000 for a video security system at the Pima County Jail. He also moved $2.5 million out of the Flood Control Budget into the General Fund, de facto accomplishing about half of what the lawyers told him he couldn't do the other way.
Marsh then tried to cut the whole budget by $10 million, claiming he'd found at least $20 million in waste. There was probably more, but unfortunately Marsh has never specified in any manner where that waste is. Eckstrom countered with a $2 million cut out of the phony end-of-year surplus; Boyd went for a $3 million cut and Eckstrom took it as a friendly amendment.
So all law enforcement cuts were restored, the employees will get something resembling a raise, the process will be brought closer to reality next year, the bureaucracy lost some control of a big pot of money and we'll all be paying a little less in property taxes. It took about four hours.
And if it hadn't been for Dan Eckstrom, those clowns would probably still be there.
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