Numbers Racket

City Council candidates juggle the books

Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, the GOP incumbents seeking re-election to the Tucson City Council next month, say that they've made tough budget choices to ensure there's enough money to hire more cops and firefighters, open new park and rec centers, clean up old landfill sites and help the disabled.

Nina Trasoff and Karin Uhlich, the Democrats who hope to unseat the incumbents, complain that the Republicans balanced Tucson's budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly and the children.

The biggest points of contention revolve around the monthly $14 fee for trash collection and tuition fees for KIDCO, an after-school program funded by the city.

After years of resistance, the council majority of Ronstadt, Dunbar, Mayor Bob Walkup and Councilwoman Carol West enacted the new trash-collection charge--formally known as the "environmental services fee" and derided by critics as the "garbage tax"--as part of the budget passed in June 2004. Democrats Steve Leal, Jose Ibarra and Shirley Scott voted against the budget, in part because of the trash fee.

The approval of the trash fee was a major breakthrough for former City Manager James Keene, who left City Hall in January to take a job in California. Keene had long urged council members to make structural changes in the city's budget. Although Tucson's total budget now hovers around $1 billion, roughly $6 out of every $10 are restricted to specific programs, because the funding comes from feds, the state or another source. The city's general fund, where the City Council has discretion over spending, was regularly so tight that the city had put off fixing streets, improving parks and hiring cops and firefighters. At the same time, the council had drained reserve funds to balance the budget.

The trash fee allowed Keene to spin off the city's Environmental Services Department--formally the Solid Waste Department--into an enterprise department supported by the revenues that it raises (similar to Tucson Water, whose director, Dave Modeer, has been overseeing the transition). It also freed up about $20 million in the $395 million general fund, which has helped to fund the hiring of 94 new police officers, open two new fire stations with additional firefighters, expand parks and rec facilities, improve Van Tran service for the disabled, cover the cost of rising health insurance for employees and add money to dwindling reserve funds.

The final numbers show that in the fiscal year that ended June 30, the environmental fee brought in $19.8 million. In addition, the city collected $6.9 million from commercial accounts.

The solid waste department is now close to running as an enterprise fund, says Mitch Basefsky, the longtime Tucson Water spokesman. He says the department still receives a subsidy from the city for payroll processing and other administrative expenses.

The general fund also provides a subsidy for low-income Tucsonans who need help paying the bills. Households within 150 percent of the federal poverty line are eligible to have the city pay their entire monthly bill--water, sewer and garbage collection. That program cost the city $570,840 last year, less than the $735,680 that had been budgeted for the program, according to Basefsky.

Ronstadt and Dunbar both point out that trash-collection fees are common in Arizona cities. "There's not another municipality in the state that doesn't pay for garbage," says Ronstadt, who adds that money also pays for cleaning up old landfills, expanding existing ones and protecting the aquifer.

Although Ronstadt, who is seeking his third term on the council, was a big booster of the fee, Dunbar reluctantly supported it. She opposed it while running for the open Ward 3 seat in 2001. "When does your word mean something?" she said in April 2004--before changing her mind two months later.

Dunbar defends her decision to implement the fee by arguing that it freed up dollars to pay for more cops, firefighters and other services. She calls it one of the toughest votes of her first term.

"But when you take the job, and you're presented with information you didn't have a clue about, what do you do?" she asks. "In my heart of hearts, I still have that Republican in me that I don't want to raise taxes. I hate it. But what were the choices?"

Uhlich has hammered Dunbar for the flip-flop.

"Her promise does not mean anything. It really doesn't," says Uhlich, executive director for the Southwest Center for Economic Integrity, a nonprofit that seeks to help low-income residents to avoid the perils of exploitative day-labor and payday-lending enterprises.

Uhlich herself doesn't object to collecting a trash fee. As far back as 1996, as chair of the city's budget committee, she recommended the city impose a fee of $4 a month. But she remains uncertain of how much she'd charge residents and doesn't know whether the council should reverse the decision to make Environmental Services into an enterprise department.

"We have to revisit the whole thing and put everything back on the table," Uhlich says.

In Ward 6, Trasoff says she wants to get rid of the garbage fee.

"I morally objected to putting on a tax that had such a dramatic impact on working families and the elderly," says Trasoff, a former television reporter who has spent the last two decades doing public-relations work.

In her campaign kickoff in front of the Democrats of Greater Tucson in March, Trasoff announced she would support repealing the garbage fee outright, but almost immediately started backpedaling. While she criticizes Ronstadt for enacting the fee, she says the budget is now dependent on it. She promises that if she's elected, she'll find ways to reduce it, with the goal of eliminating it before she leaves office. She opposes keeping Environmental Services as an enterprise fund as "it's currently set up."

Ronstadt says Trasoff's position on the garbage fee has changed over the course of the campaign because she can't balance the budget without it.

"She's backing away from something she knows is absolutely wrong," says Ronstadt. "The only plan that she's presented to this community is the plan that will take away the funding source for public safety and kids programs and Van Tran and all the essential services this community has been so lacking."

The Democrats also complain that to balance the budget, Republicans have slashed spending for children's programs. In particular, they point to KIDCO, a Parks and Rec Department program that provides supervision to elementary students between the end of the school day and 5 p.m.

The city has actually boosted spending on KIDCO. In fiscal year 2004, the city budgeted $1.8 million; in 2005, the budget was $1.874 million. In the current fiscal year, the city has budgeted $1.928 million for the program.

The number of kids participating has also increased. In fiscal year 2003, it served 2,461 kids during the school year; in fiscal year 2005, it served 2,621. (Participation in the summer months increased from 2,285 to 2,654 during the same period.)

But the council has made a significant change to the KIDCO program: It enacted a $50-a-semester fee for the program during the school year and a $75 charge for the all-day summer program. The fee raised $218,630 last year.

As with the garbage-collection fee, the city instituted a discount program for low-income families. The sliding scale offers discounts ranging from 25 percent to 90 percent, based on income. During the fiscal year that ended in June, 2,447 KIDCO registrants used the discount program.

Dunbar says the fee is very low--less than 50 cents a day for people paying full cost and as low as 5 cents a day for low-income kids who take advantage the sliding scale--and has allowed the city to boost spending on the program to serve more kids.

But Uhlich opposes charging any fee for after-school programs.

"I don't think it's the right approach to impose fees on people and create layers of bureaucracy that make it more difficult for people to participate," Uhlich says. "It ends up harming the entire community. It's wrong-headed. It's short-sighted."

Uhlich argues that establishing a sliding scale is a bad idea because "people don't want charity." She bristles at the notion that a day-care program that's free for all citizens could be characterized as charity.

"If you create a program that's open to everybody on equal footing, what you're saying is, we are doing this because there's community value here," she says. "We're doing it for you and your family, because an investment in you and your family is an investment in all of our well-being."

Trasoff also opposes any fees for KIDCO. "It was wrong-minded. It was short-sighted. They hit the most vulnerable," she says.

But Ronstadt says that having a fee with a sliding scale helps guarantee that there's room in the program for those who need it most.

"We didn't scare anybody away," Ronstadt says. "They're still showing up."

While they're critical of various city public-relations efforts, neither Trasoff nor Uhlich have offered proposals for significant spending cuts to make up for revenues lost without a trash fee or KIDCO fees. In a July debate against Democratic primary opponent Steve Farley, Trasoff suggested that the city should study combining the nonprofit public-access television station, which receives city funding, with the city's in-house Channel 12 television station. But in a subsequent debate with Farley, she reversed course and said the idea didn't make much sense.

Both Democrats suggest that more money could be used for social programs if transportation and other impact fees were higher.

But Michael Graham, spokesman for the city's transportation department, says his department doesn't receive any general-fund dollars for capital projects. Roads are built with funds from the state and the federal government, as well as bond dollars that can't be spent on programs such as KIDCO. The only general fund dollars that the department receives pay for bus service.

Ronstadt says the impact fee suggestion shows that Trasoff has yet to grasp how the city budget works.

"She doesn't understand, really, anything that's going on in the city," Ronstadt says. "She thinks you can use impact fees to pay for services, when impact fees are a restricted, one-time revenue source."

Dunbar, who concedes with a laugh that she's made her share of ignorant statements on the campaign trail as a rookie candidate, echoes Ronstadt's observation.

"I've never campaigned against anybody who after 10 months is still talking, who has no concept of what the fees are supposed to be for," Dunbar says.