Wednesday, February 9, 2011
In this week's TW, I have an interview with Democrat Jonathan Rothschild, who recently announced he would make his political debut with a run for mayor this year. Here's a longer version of the Q&A, edited for clarity.
I’ve been real involved in community affairs. I’ve been president of Casas de los Niños, Handmaker (Home for the Aging), involved with Ben’s Bells and Operation Deep Freeze. I feel I know the community. And I also think I know the community because I’ve been practicing law for 30 years, representing some of the least-well-off people as well as some people who are pretty well off. I’ve been real results-oriented. What’s real important to me and one of the things that driving me is that I have three children—one actually works with us in the law firm now and two are away at college. One is in law school in Spokane and the other is in undergraduate school in Los Angeles. And I’d very much like them to believe they can come back to this community. That’s what I’m going to work towards.
Why run for mayor of Tucson?
I think the mayor can have a very important role in this community, both as a leader and as somebody who can get things done. The city government has a very important role to play in our community. It covers all the basic services and, quite frankly, I think that city government is the last safety net. Whatever problems are left over, the city is required to deal with it, whether they’re dealing with
the police department, the fire department, their sanitation, their water, their roads. I was born here and I’m going to die here. With my son, that’s four generations.
Somebody sent me an article from The New York Times and it’s about the life of philosophers. They quote Nietzsche, who probably didn’t live the best life, but he said: “The only way you can test your philosophy is live it.” And I have this philosophy of doing public service and trying to help people and I want to live it.
In going around town and talking to people, I think there’s a lot more commonality in this town between city folk and county folk. I think people understand the need to bring the governments together a little more, whether that be by strategic annexation or whatever it may be. I think people are finally beginning to understand that if we don’t incorporate, we’ve got a load of money going to Phoenix that never comes back.
So what does everybody want? They want a decent job, they want their kids to get a good education, they want to feel like they live in safety, they want to live in a place where there are interesting things to do and they want to live in a decent environment. I don’t care where you live. And we just need to try to bring this community together. I could be fooling myself, but I think that this is a good time for that.
The overarching challenge facing city government right now is the financial problem—the budget, because that really gets back to what you can do with the services of government. There’s one argument that resources should be pushed toward police and fire and street repair. And there’s a counter-argument that there are other programs that need support—our parks, or KidCo, or support for the arts. Where do you come down on that debate?
I don’t think there’s any question that our basic services—our police, our fire, our water, our sanitation—are vital, but if you just had that, you wouldn’t have a city that people wanted to live in. So you need to provide and you need to balance on all those fronts. My approach—and it’s a little more long-range—is that we’ve had to concentrate a lot on the expense side recently. I want to concentrate on the revenue side. The city of Tucson is relying on sales tax. We’ve got to bring retail sales establishments into the city. We’ve got to bring people into the city with appropriate in-fill, because if you don’t live here, you don’t shop here. We’ve got to, where appropriate, do strategic annexation so we can have that economic base. You can cut, cut, cut and there’s going to come a point where there’s just no more to cut. And we’ll see how that plays out in the short term. The City Council has, from last year to the end of next year, taken the city’s work force from 5,100 to 4,100. That’s a lot, and it may strain what kind of services we get in the city. We need to start concentrating on the revenue side.
What’s the argument to persuade folks from foothills to accept annexation? That effort has gone on here for many years with very little success.
I was just thinking: What’s the right thing to do? And I’ve been talking to people about it. And I was surprised to see that people are seeing that now. And I think the driving force is the idea that state-shared revenues need to stay in Tucson. But there are other things. A lot of the people who live in the unincorporated area work in the city, and they feel like they’re a stakeholder, but they don’t get a vote. Water is a major resource. It’s a resource that’s controlled by the city but they don’t get a vote. I think there’s also this underlying idea that we would be a stronger community if we came together a little more.
There’s certainly a perception that the city of Tucson is not functioning as well as it ought to be, that there are a lot of things being bungled down at City Hall. Is that a fair perception?
I don’t know that it is a fair perception. There are things that are definitely subject to criticism. There are other things that I think the council has acted on very well. The most recent settlement with police and fire on how the cuts are going to be administered, I thought was handled well.
In terms of not laying people off but also not filling vacancies.
Right. At the same time, Rio Nuevo is a dirty word in this town. And we may very well lose the TIF not because of anything that happened here but because the state legislature decides it needs the money. That will be money we’ll still be taxed on but we won’t ever see again. But there’s things that are in the ground. There’s $120 million of new private development in downtown in the last year. It’s here because infrastructure was put in, parking garages were put in and the like. At the same time, there was a lot of money spent on studies and the soft costs and quite frankly, by people who are really not associated with the city anymore, but this council is having to deal with it. My concern, and it has to do with the mayor’s office, is that under the structure we have now, the mayor should be taking a more active role and should be taking a more active role in managing the agenda, in managing the council, in just making sure that communications are good with the council. And taking that bully pulpit and going out and advocating not for the soft good things that the city does, but the hard good thing. When I say that, I mean the things the city does environmentally, or the things the city does with water, or what the city does with police. And there’s good things that happen every day.
There’s also perception that the city isn’t business friendly, that’s there’s too much bureaucracy, and the city responds by saying, “Look how many permits we gave out this month.”
I think we need to work on that. And I think we can work from the top. We’ve all heard these stories, where we’ve got to the city and said, “Hey, can I do this?” And somebody in the city will say, “That’s a good idea, but I don’t know if we can do that.” I’ve talked to a lot of city employees. I really think that if it comes from the top, the attitude is gonna be: “If that’s a good idea, let’s go see if we can get that done.” Not: “We don’t think we can do that.”
But I am very much in favor of putting an ombudsman in the mayor’s office, reporting to the mayor, who will help people who are having difficulties with business issues, permits, signs, whatever it may be. You know, you have to go through the process, but if something really seems unfair in the process, you can come to a place that’s under the mayor’s office. I want to do this to do public service. And I want to be an advocate for citizens. I think that would be one way to help. I think the mayor can be more communicative with the business community. I’ve proposed holding mayor/business roundtables on a regular basis. I’ll walk the streets and walk into small businesses. There are things that can be done that don’t cost a lot. Streamlining processes. Looking maybe at codes or just the way the processes work.
Is there something that can be done about mini-dorm developments near the University of Arizona, other than push for an ordinance that says we’re not going to allow more than two people who are not related to each other live in a house?
Something that’s really important to me is to bring more university housing downtown. No. 1, private business will find, on its own, 5,000 kids with their parents’ credit card. It will then help take the pressure off those very nice neighborhoods that surround the university by doing that. And probably the long-run effect is that if we have students downtown, living that life, there’s a much better chance that those people wil stay in Tucson afterwards and start the next Microsoft or the next business that will generate what we need.
Do you think that the neighbors who are complaining about mini-dorms have legitimate gripes about how it’s disrupting their neighborhoods?
Yeah, I do. And I haven’t studied it as hard as I will need to, but we’ve got a red-tag code, which has been really helpful. I think this is not so much that issue as it is the issue of disrupting the character of a neighborhood with the housing that appears there. I think you can fine-tune that, but my idea is, if the university is providing housing downtown, that’s where the market is going to be.
You only have a few developers who are doing mini-dorms and they seem pretty determined to push ahead with what they’re doing, and your tools seem pretty limited in what you can do about it.
We’ll see what happens.
There were steps taken in the early part of the last decade to establish a trash fee—unpopular at the time and major issue for Democrats who ran against Republicans complaining that the GOP incumbents had created a trash fee. The city stopped funding the library and handed it over to the county. And those were things that helped restructure the finances of the city and freed up funds to start concentrating on streets, on hiring cops, on hiring firefighters. Since then, we’ve had financial problems that have eliminated the so-called “sustainability plan.” Will there be a need to continue that kind of restructuring of the budget? Things like the rental tax that is charged in almost every other major city in Arizona but has been fiercely resisted in Tucson?
My order of looking at things has got to be first, enhancing revenue by making a broader base, not a higher base. Then looking at improving efficiencies. There are times when you may have to look at what fees and the like are required to make the city sustainable. I think you’re going to have to look at those. And you look at them on a case-by-case basis.
Another one that came up and was resisted by the council was the idea of raising bus fares.
I gotta believe that we can look at bus fares, keeping in mind that there are a couple of principles with the buses: One, we’ve got to ensure that our low-income riders can ride. That the people who are taking the bus to get to work can ride them. That doesn’t mean that a certain level of other bus fares cannot be increased. We do have to look at that because if we want to have more routes in the city and we want to maintain our buses, we can do that. I think there are some other efficiencies there.
Right now, there are complaints that in order to get your low-income pass, there’s not much a stringent process in terms of qualifying. Does there need to be a tightening of the requirements?
The devil is always in the detail. Any time you start looking at means testing, there’s going to be friction between getting it right and being too intrusive to people. You just find a balance point and that’s what you go with.
There’s been criticism that light rail is a trolley to nowhere and a waste of money. Is it a waste of money or is it an economic-development tool?
I think it’s an economic-development tool, but I think what’s more important about it is that it was part of the voter-approved RTA. It was something that we voted on and historically, when we vote on something and the government doesn’t do it, people get upset. So we did it. Most of the money—not all of it, but most of it—is coming from the federal government. I think it’s nice that upon occasion, we get money from Massachusetts or people in North Dakota, instead of our money always going to them. And I hear that criticism a lot, and one of the things that might make more sense is if we can get a better public-transportation system from the east side that would lead into this kind of thing, where people will enjoy it. One of the things that I’m convinced of is that whenever change is proposed, most people don’t like change.
As much as they might say they want it.
Yes. So that when change comes, there’s always resistance. And three years later, people don’t remember the change. So I hope it’s a good thing. We will see.