Cost of Crime

City Council candidates debate the Public Safety First Initiative

Proposition 200 is a delicate issue for the candidates running for Tucson City Council.

The Democratic incumbents don't want to say they oppose the Public Safety First Initiative, which would require the city to eventually spend an estimated $51 million a year more on cops and firefighters, because they worry that they'll look soft on crime.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who hope to unseat the Democrats fully support the initiative, but they don't want to talk about how to pay for it, because they don't want to acknowledge that they're going to have to either raise taxes or cut other services, such as parks and transportation.

Prop 200, which was put on the Nov. 3 ballot by a coalition that includes the Tucson Association of Realtors, the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association, and the police and fire unions, would force the city to hire at least 2.4 officers per 1,000 city residents in the next five years and improve the response time of the Tucson Fire Department.

City Manager Mike Letcher estimates that Prop 200 would cost an estimated $51 million annually once it's fully implemented in five years. The cost of getting the city to those standards over five years is estimated to be $157 million. (See "Police Action," Sept. 24, for more details.)

Groups opposing the initiative include the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Pima County Interfaith Council.

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, the incumbent Democrat in Ward 3, says she's not taking a stand on Prop 200.

"I think it's more persuasive for me to provide good information as an individual than to try to persuade people and say, 'This is where I'm headed on this one,'" says Uhlich. "I really do trust the electorate, and once something goes to the ballot, the key is making sure that voters have information."

That dodge doesn't stop Uhlich from warning that Prop 200 would be a "very costly, expensive proposition" for the city.

"This proposition would force expenditures without any funding source," Uhlich says.

Uhlich argues that the City Council has already made public safety a priority. Between 2006 and 2008, the city added 80 new positions for police officers. When the council was forced to cut spending this year to balance the budget as a slow economy reduced sales-tax collections, cops and firefighters were spared the one-week furloughs that other city workers had to take.

Uhlich also notes that the rate of reports of violent crime, burglaries and most other crime is dropping in Tucson, according to Tucson Police Department statistics.

Uhlich's Republican opponent, Ben Buehler-Garcia, says he's fully behind the initiative, because the Tucson Police Department needs more cops to fight crime.

"Crime is absolutely rampant in Tucson, and it's not acceptable, and we have to address it," says Buehler-Garcia, who adds that criminal activity makes it hard to lure new businesses to Tucson.

Buehler-Garcia, who works as a political consultant, says he hasn't had a chance to examine the city's budget closely enough to find the additional $51 million to pay for Prop 200, but he suggests that the city could find some of it through greater efficiency. Other money, he says, could come to the city as the economy rebounds.

Buehler-Garcia concedes that Prop 200 is an unfunded mandate, which is generally a bad idea. But in this instance, he says it's necessary.

Green Party candidate Mary DeCamp is the only candidate in Ward 3 who is willing to flat-out say that she's opposed to Prop 200.

"It's an unfunded mandate," DeCamp says. "We already spend 64 percent of our general fund on police and fire protection."

Given the decrease in crime rates in Tucson, DeCamp says, "I don't understand why there is such a push on the part of the developers and Jim Click to bolster our police force at this time."

DeCamp suggests that an expanded neighborhood-watch program would do more to cut crime.

In the Ward 6 race, it's a similar story. Democratic incumbent Nina Trasoff boasts that in the four years she's been on the council, the city has added 80 new police officers and 75 new firefighters.

"The only reason we stopped was because the economy busted, and we didn't have the funding for it anymore," Trasoff says.

Like Uhlich, Trasoff says the initiative has no funding source, which means it will force the City Council to cut other spending or raise taxes to pay for the additional cops.

"We could be forced to cut the very prevention programs that are bringing the crime rate down," Trasoff says. "If we can get to a young person with a prevention program and keep them out of the system, beyond saving money, we're saving a life and all the lives that are attached to that person."

But she's reluctant to say she opposes the initiative, because it would "sound as if I'm not in support of public safety, and I'm completely in support of public safety. ... I don't want to kill our budget for everything else, because public safety is absolutely our no. 1 priority. But it's not our only responsibility as government. We also have responsibility for the parks, which have tremendous prevention programs within them, and transportation, which is a major quality-of-life issue."

Republican Steve Kozachik, who hopes to unseat Trasoff in November, fully supports Prop 200. He says the city needs to spend more on cops, but when asked where he would cut the budget to pay for more police officers, he declines to talk about cuts to the city's general fund.

"I'm not going down that road, because you're asking for a Reader's Digest answer to a complex question, and I'm not running for dictator," says Kozachik, who manages the facilities for the UA Athletics Department. "I could sit here and give you examples, but I'm not going to do that, simply because it's not for one person to decide. It's a community decision."

Among the Democrats, only Richard Fimbres, who is running in Ward 5 for the seat now held by the retiring Steve Leal, openly opposes Prop 200.

"I think everybody supports public safety, and you want to support those in the community, but the timing of this initiative is terrible, especially with the economic downturn that we're in," says Fimbres, who has worked for more than two decades in program management at the Pima County Jail and served as the director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety under Democrat Janet Napolitano until her resignation earlier this year. "The city is already talking about a deficit in next year's budget, and this will just compound the problem."

Fimbres' opponent, Republican Shaun McClusky, says he supports Prop 200.

"I feel like public safety is the no. 1 responsibility of our council and mayor," says McClusky, who owns a property-management firm.

McClusky is confident he can find enough money to pay for the additional cops and firefighters in the city's budget.

"You can't tell me that there is not mismanagement and outright waste in the current city budget," says McClusky, who suggests that paying more attention to turning off lights in city buildings could cut utility costs.

However, McClusky has a hard time identifying major savings in the city's general fund, although he said the city should spend less money on outside consultants.

"I think there's enough money in the budget to go around to everybody and not have to cut anything," McClusky says. "You wouldn't have to reduce services, nor would you have to raise fees, nor would you have to raise taxes. We need to streamline the budget."