Zona Politics: City Council Debate Between Councilman Paul Cunningham and GOP Challenger Kelly Lawton

Zona Politics Eps.41 from Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel on Vimeo.

On this week's episode of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel: The latest in our series of debates between the candidates for the Tucson City Council, co-sponsored by our media partners here at the Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media and KXCI-FM. This week, Ward 2 Councilman Paul Cunningham faces GOP challenger Kelly Lawton. Topics include the best way to pay for road repairs, how to handle the bus system, strategies to tackle Tucson's poverty problems and whether the candidates support the county bonds. Tune in at 8 a.m. Sunday on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on broadcast, DirecTV and Dish. Or hear it on KXCI-FM at 5 p.m. on Sunday evening. Or just watch the above video.

Here's a transcript of the show:

(Nintzel) Hello everyone. I'm Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel, and we're here to talk Zona Politics We're partnering with the Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media and KXCI FM to bring you the second of three debates with this year's candidates for Tucson City Council. Today we have the candidates for the Ward 2 council seat, incumbent Democrat Paul Cunningham, who is seeking his second full term representing the East side ward, and Republican challenger Kelly Lawton, who has worked in the airline industry and now is the campus director for the Tucson and Sierra Vista branches of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Thanks to both of you for being here. And we'd like to start by just having each of you take about a minute to introduce yourself to voters, and explain why you're the best person to represent Ward 2. Councilman Cunningham, why don't you start?

(Cunningham) Well, I've served for the last five years. I think we've had a good five years here in Tucson, definitely an improvement from where we were five years ago. Tucson was facing a lot of challenges. We had some infrastructure problems We had a downtown that was still not really getting any legs. We had some mismanagement within the city departments. We had some issues regarding crime, and we were looking at a 15 percent budget cut where we would lay off actual first responders. In this past five years we haven't laid off any first responders. We've seen the crime rate go down. We've seen infrastructure improvements. We've had 300 miles of new road laid down. We've got the highest job totals three of the first six months of this year, and so economically we've seen a nice upturn according to the bureau of labor standard statistics. We've seen an increase in the commercial occupancy rate. We had a lot of closed stores in 2010. We've seen those improve. We've also seen a billion dollars up to this point being invested in the downtown in the last five years, so I think we've had a good run in these last five years. I think we've done a good job making sure Tucson could be proud again and I'm honored to be a part of that, and I hope we can continue in the next four.

(Nintzel) Mr. Lawton, talk about why you're in this race.

(Lawton) Well, you know, I'll tell you, Jim I get that question quite a bit, and I liken it to being sick and tired of being sick and tired. I'm a native Tucsonan. I've lived here all my life. I was born and raised and educated right here in Tucson, and actually I grew up on the East side of Tucson in Ward 2, so if anyone can bring testimony to Ward 2, I think I can. You know, looking at the issues facing the City of Tucson, and looking at issues facing Ward 2 in particular, the list is very long. I look at the economy as a whole, because, you know, as a councilperson we do vote. We do evaluate budgets, and that's a concern, because, year over year, as a business leader, I look at this city taking on tremendous debt and not being able to really function at its full efficiency. Public safety, as Mr. Cunningham had brought up, that is an issue as well. I can narrow that scope and we can go back to Ward 2 specifically, on the East side of Tucson, we do have some issues and some concerns. Actually, they are of great concern because in the past two years we have had an, I'll classify it as domestic terrorism. When the FBI is involved in various situations related to public safety and police — manhole, spikes in manhole covers, people using chain saws and cutting our power lines, power poles in half, drilling holes in our gas lines looking at a series of major issues when it comes to public safety. Staffing is one of them We've gone from 111 to 67 police officers. Mr. Cunningham, the last time that we met, said, you know, we're looking at actually 80 or so. The staffing models never change. Well the approval numbers never change, but we are at an all-time low with public safety. That's of concern. And that's part of the reason why I'm running.

(Nintzel) I want to start with talking about the roads in Tucson, because I think that's something a lot of people have concerns about and we'll start with you, Mr. Lawton. Your thoughts on how the city can find the money it needs to both maintain the roads and to fix the ones that need fixing.

(Lawton) Okay, well, first and foremost is really managing the system. The oversight. As a community leader, it's really my job to ensure that we do have public safety, police fire, parks and roads, and a better economy. But we're looking at roads in particular. Prop 409 was passed a couple years back. Five-year, $100 million deal. There's about three years remaining on that proposition, and those funds are dedicated to roads. Road improvement year over year should be a no-brainer. I've lived, again I've lived in this town all my life and when we look at our roads, it's been an ongoing issue year over year, roads thoroughfares, residential streets, always a topic If we could put ourselves on a regular, year over year maintenance program, we can actually expand the lifespan of our roadways, okay? We have to maintain our roads properly in order for them to live and be durable for a long period of time. If we continue to tax, borrow and spend and put roads in place and then a ten-year life span, the next thing you know, we're paying for those roads 20 years later. That to me is not efficient spending. We need to be effective We need to manage our roads. We need to hold folks accountable, and we need to get the job done. We need to be more consistent in our efforts in road repair and maintenance.

(Nintzel) Paul, what do you think?

(Cunningham) Prior to me being on the council the road maintenance program was actually suspended and the roads dilapidated into a state of repair that would have cost us about a $100 million dollars just to catch up. Just to play catch up. In the meantime we had our Highway User Revenue Funds from the state swept out of the budget. As a result, no work got done. When I first came into office, despite those issues, we reinstituted a chip seal program, neighborhood by neighborhood. Every ward got at least one square mile. Some neighborhoods have now had two to three square miles of chip seal just on the neighborhood side. We did that before Prop 409. The other thing we did is when we passed Prop 409, we were able to start to play catch up, but we have a program for maintenance long term. The real question is how we pay for it. I mean, it’s great to say that we need to maintain the roads. I mean, everybody agrees with that. The bottom line is that you've got to figure out how to pay for it long term. That may come, that comes with community conversation on whether you want to do something county wide, or if you want to make it a regional issue, whether or not you want to tax, and we have to ask the voters for that. Again, that becomes a community conversation later on. Those strategies need to be examined if we're going to have the longterm infrastructure we deserve in Tucson. Right now, I'd say that we've made tremendous progress in the roads. We've had 300 miles of thoroughfare repaired in Ward 2. Just about every thoroughfare has been repaired with one notable exception, which is an RTA project, which is now 18 months ahead of schedule. Its completion may be about two or three years ahead of schedule We could have put 409 money into that stretch of road—I'm talking about Broadway from Camino Seco to Houghton, which is our most challenged part of road. We could have put 409 money in, but we would have had to dig it up and start again when the RTA money came through, and I couldn't in good conscience say, "Hey let's lay some road down, pay for it for 20 years, but tear it up six years later." So I think right now we're on the right track, but long term we're going to have to find a way to pay for it.

(Nintzel) You mention a community conversation. Do you have any thoughts on how we can find the revenue we need?

(Cunningham) It depends. I'd prefer it to be something like a nickel a gallon tax that would be proposed. I don't want to raise property I would not want to raise property taxes. The property taxes in this county are too high. I think that's the last place you go. I really don't want to look at sales tax, so that would be one revenue source. The other revenue source would be to see if we can A) bring back in, if we don't get the tax, you bring back in your highways revenue funds and B) you reevaluate your priorities in the budget.

(Nintzel) But you can't really create a regional gas tax at this point under state law.

(Cunningham) Not at the moment, no.

(Nintzel) Any thoughts on what a revenue source might be to fix these roads, or do we need a revenue source? Can we do it with the current city budget?

(Lawton) I believe that if we manage our budget effectively we can be very good at what we do. I'd like to kind of piggy-back on Mr. Cunningham comments, there. We have close to a billion dollars of unfunded capital expenditures in Tucson, Arizona. So when we look at the budget and we look at roads this is the mentality, and it's actually borrowing and spending making things happen. Unfortunately are not working for Tucson. Broadway from Camino Seco to Harrison, that particular piece of road I drive that road every single day and I've done that for the last eight years since living in that area. That road is has gone unmanaged for longer than that, so when we look at you know, whether or not we fix it with 409 money or put RTA funds in there, you know the fact of the matter is, we're not managing the city. We're not managing our ward. These are issues that have been at the forefront, but folks have not have, in those neighborhoods—I walked those neighborhoods. I knocked on those doors and they say, "When are you going to fix my road?" And I'm like, "Well, I'd love to fix it today, you know, but you're going to have to vote me in on November 3 to get it done."

(Nintzel) Let me ask about the bus strike, which wrapped up this week. Long-term question is, what is going to happen with our bus system, and what I want to know is "Should we be raising bus fares, and should we be changing the routes?

(Cunningham) We had a comprehensive analysis. This was two and a half years ago. It called for $2.4 million of fare increases. One of them was some of the fares across the board, that would have been 30 to 35 cents, 40 percent increases. The teamsters opposed the fares. They did not want to see that increase happen. The other piece was that decision on whether or not you're going to compromise losing a significant amount of your clientele. We went back to the board. We reworked it. We put it about $1.7 million of those reductions, which definitely increased the efficiency. Other efficiencies within the bus system include, we probably have too many bus stops. We've one-mile stretches where we have eight or nine bus stops so some of those changes need to be made. We have a transit consultant, transit guru Jarrett Walker, we brought in to kind of help us along with those lines. On the other side, long term I think this strike was the result of a long-term antagonistic relationship with labor and the management company. We need to take a look at what the model's going to be. Whether or not we should have a PTM model. Whether or not we should go to a regional program. Five years ago, I made the motion to move this to a regional program. I didn't like the model at the time, and that was the change I wanted to make we would have been locking it up at the time about $32 million dollars a year and saved $8 million on the budget over the last five years. It would have been a $40 million net savings we would have had, so, when I look at those options, I think this strike is going to trigger that discussion again, and when we trigger that discussion, we'll be able to take a look at long term what kind of model we're going to have. What kind of relationship we're going to have between the management and labor in the new model. Whether or not we can have private foundation, or whether or not it becomes a subcommittee of the RTA, the Regional Transit Authority which I think is a better, which is probably a better model and the way I'd kind of like to see it happen moving forward

(Nintzel) Kelly, what do you think? On the buses, is it time to start raising fares? again on the bus service, and do you think that we need more efficiencies in the system, and should we go to some sort of turning it over to the Regional Transportation Authority or some similar move to take it away from the city.

(Lawton) Well, one thing that I'd like to make clear is that Mr. Cunningham, year over year, has pushed for increases to the trans budget or the subsidies for the transit system. The transit system is a money loser. Airlines are the same thing. I spent 20 years in the airline businesss. And in my 20 years of being in the airline business, we did major restructuring. That restructuring was around two fundamental principles, efficiency and labor. So when we look at the cost of how we do business by way of this transit system, route efficiencies is a good thing. It actually makes us more efficient as a city. It serves the public better. So when we look at that, that's, that is the number one priority: Serve the public. Give them a transit system to get to where they have to go in time in a timely manner. Beyond that, we look at the fare increase. Airlines did the same thing. You look at an airline today, it's a multi-billion dollar enterprise. If we don't increase the fares for the buses, you'll continue to have a money loser. If we don't increase the fares for the buses, you'll continue to have a money loser. Every empty seat on that bus is lost revenue. Those buses should be full. That's how we look at the efficiencies.

(Nintzel) Do you run them less often then in hope sof having more people riding per bus?

(Lawton) Absolutely. You know, frequencies of the time that they spend at various stops. I mean look at a lot of different factors and how to make that system work more efficiently. The beautiful thing is that PTM has come to the table and had put together a comprehnsive operational analysis that outlines everything to make that system work Nothing's adopted, so as a result of that, we continue to go year over year dealing with the this, uh, you know, labor issues and so on with the system, they're not as efficient. It's a money loser. We need to look at it and fix the problem.

Kelly, let's talk a little bit about the city budget. What are some areas where you think they could be spending more, and what are some areas where you think they should be spending less?

(Lawton) Well, I tell you, when you look at the budget, it's enlightening to see that we this particular budget, $1.36 billion, is roughly $103 million more than last year. So we look at our expenditures, we have no real hard sources of revenue so that, to me, is a structurally imbalanced budget. Moody's and Fitch, two of the three credit and bond-rating agencies in the world, gave the City of Tucson an Aa3 rating, and they cautioned it will cost the city of Tucson more money to do business because we have a structurally imbalanced budget. Now, Mr. Cunningham will say, "We're good to go,” and we are, our budget is good, but we continue to rob from our stabilization fund, and to we don't make any back contributions to it, and we haven't for four or five years. That, to me, is a red flag and it is also a red flag to those financial creditors Budgeting is a very serious business. I do it. I propose a budget every year. I run, as you had said earlier, two campuses. I have various cost-centers involved in that and as a leader, or as a manager, if I don't manage that budget efficiently or effectively, I get in trouble for it. Year over year, we continue to pass the budget, we continue to go after costs out of control costs, and nothing really viable comes out of it. What we need to do is strategically look top down bottom up at each cost center. Take the recommendations that are made by the those directors and those department leaders. Work with the city manager, work with the budget office, and make our city prosper. Grow and prosper. This budget is a byproduct of our economy. When we have an economy that has a growth rate of less than 3 percent, when you have 10 percent of the commercial buildings empty downtown, that's a problem. So the only real viable solution for revenue generation in this city right now is annexation, state tax, land sales, property tax. I mean this goes, you know, there's a very short list, actually. We need to do a better job managing our our budget and be more efficient.

(Nintzel) Councilman Cunningham, specific area that you would like to see raised ....

(Cunningham) There are a few things. Start with the $103 million increase a substantial part of that increase is long-term pension costs. Those long-term pension costs are why we're getting our bond rating moved down. I mean, that's the biggest piece of it.

(Lawton) And transit.

(Cunningham) The biggest piece of that $100 million is long-term pension costs. We've had several different proposals. We have the state fire State Fire Association working with the state to set up some programs that will change the long-term costs of those pensions. The non-public-safety employees those pensions, we've stabilized that fund. We have a much more stable pension for those employees. Public safety, we've got some work to do, and again that's going to come outside the City of Tucson. I mean, we have obligations to meet those. We meet those every year. At the same time I voted for the last five budgets. I stand by each one of those votes. Each one of those votes included not laying off first responders. We've reduced the number of city employees from 5600 to 4200 over the last five years We've seen new construction of roads, we've seen new management, we put a million dollars back into parks last year in the budget that helped some of the infrastructure long-term needs of the parks because sometimes they get neglected. They kind of get lost in the shuffle Look, the city does four things: It does police and fire it does parks, it does roads. Those are the four core parts of what we do. And we have to ensure that all of them are funded properly, and people can do what they need. Understand the budget is really two parts. It's a two-sided budget There's the general fund, which is from sales tax, state shared revenue, property tax those are the taxes, and that's fund municipal side and the first-responders. The second part is enterprise funds, which is water and sanitation or what we like to call environmental services. That side of the budget has been very stable We've been good stewards. That side of the budget has been solid every year. We're also one of the only cities in the Western United States who isn't facing a long-term water problem So when you look at it, I'm not gonna say that everything is all good, but what I'm gonna tell you is that in each budget it each year, everything comes in and we try to be as responsible as we can, then try to put the best package forward, and I think we have in the last five years

(Nintzel) Tucson is facing some pretty significan't poverty problems. What are some strategies that the city can adopt to deal with ....

(Cunningham) We have a grant program that provides services provides gateway services for people stuck in poverty. When you see the poverty rates, the poverty level is compared to the consumer price index and that's kind of how they measure it. It's based on income and home prices. If you take a look at the poverty level, which is, that statistic is given to us through the American Family Service and the U.S. Census Bureau, if you look at that American Family Service from 2010, 11, 12, 13, countywide, but also within the city limits you see that number, especially the number of children in poverty go down, and as a result we're going to keep making chips, we're going to keep chipping away at it but that comes with services and giving people the gateway to get into services and allow them to pull themselves up We can't just continue to give things away. And I think we've been, I think we've been successful there. I'd like to see a little bit, a little bit more movement, but again, if you judge through the American family survey, and you see kind of how those numbers have played out. We've seen some improvement in that poverty level. (Nintzel) And you're shaking your head there, Kelly, so .... (Lawton) I'm amazed. I'm amazed That went back to the pensions. The pensions are in three-year phases It's gonna cost the taxpayer $24 million over 20 years. More money. Cost the taxpayer Okay. The pensions rrecited were cited also in that report by Moody and Fitch as a concern A defined contribution plan will work We need to come to the table, and protect and preserve those pensions, those folks have already dropped, and we look at programs that are more centered around market. If we continue to go down the road, as a lot of the city processes, a lot of the procedures that are in play right now, we just continue to kick the can down the road, again, the pensions are out of balance. If we continue, the city's gonna go bankrupt

(Nintzel) How about strategies for helping deal with our poverty issues here in town, outside of the city employees.

(Lawton) I'll tell you what, a sad fact of reality is, one in three kids lives in poverty. A third of our population makes less than $27,000 a year. We don't have any job creation. I mean, the thought process is, "This city is a rich city in construction” and in the recession took a major hit. So if we diversity our economy, and we start to look at the things that we do well aviation and aerospace is one of them. Biosciences, so solar, the list goes on and on and on. We do a lot of great things in the city We partner with the community, and we provide opportunities, for education and training, and we actually fill those voids in the community with what the employers need Here's the deal, Jim. The University of Arizona's a top 25 research institution. It's a top five entrepreneur entrepreneurial school. However we don't see any byproducts from that And that's unacceptable to me. As community leaders, we need to step up to the table and provide opportunities and facilitate this stuff It's the only way that this economy's going to grow. We're going to raise the standard of living standard of living raises quality of life, and not only that it provides revenue, more revenue for the city We don't need to put more taxes on the backs of you and me and everybody else that lives in Tucson Arizona. We don't need that. What we need is more jobs so we have more taxpayers. We create a larger base of revenue, then, everything else. It's a multiplier It's a natural process, an economic natural process Quit borrowing, taxing and spending money that we don't have.

(Nintzel) When you mention borrowing money, that brings up the bond election the county is doing. Do you support the county bond election?

(Lawton) Well, I tell you what. It's seven propositions and 99 details. And I'll tell you what, some of them have benefits to the City of Tucson There are others, again, I'm gonna back up, and the statement I'm gonna make is, "I am not a tax, borrow, spend manager, leader community activist.” Whatever you want to label it. The thought process here is if we are paying for roads beyond their lifespan, I'm a "no" vote I don't think that we need to do that. It's like writing, you know, I'm gonna write a check. Because I have checks in my checkbook doesn't mean that I have money. But people continue to write checks you know: That analogy doesn't work. You have to manage a budget. That's why you have a register. You go in there. You work within your means. Again, the bond issues there are some pros, there are some cons You know, to sit back and to look again long-term at how we're going to manage our city, we need to be effective leaders, we need to proactively address the issues.

(Nintzel) Let me ask the councilman here: Are you supporting the bond election.

(Cunningham) Yes. I'm supporting all seven. You have to ask yourself, "What kind of community do we want. What kind of investment in our community do we want. This is community investment. I want to be able to say that Tucson has the same amenities and is competitive. Tucson can't be competitive unless we're going to make investments of the public works of what we have. This bond covers so many different areas, everything from open space to parks to roads to community services, to economic drivers to economic engines. I mean, this is an investment And yeah, there are a few poison pills. There's always gonna be a piece where you say, "Well, I don't want that." And I can tell you I can think of a couple off the top of my head I'm not too excited about. But at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself "What kind of Tucson do you want?" I think this bond package is a big part of that and I think this bond package gives us the opportunity to make that investment in Tucson. Going back to the ....

(Nintzel) I want to give you each 30 seconds to give a closing statement. And since you got the first word, I want to give Kelly the last word, so you go ahead and go first. Thirty seconds.

(Cunningham) Well, I mean if you want the long-term management that we're under, and what we're doing right now, we, Tucson's had a good five years. The best is yet to come. We just passed a 98-year lease with TIA. That allows Raytheon to stay for the next as long as they're in business. We also passed 15 different aero programs, aero tech part programs, to try to incubate aerospace to come here. We set up start-up Tucson We've seen, we partnered with Brink, we trimmed as much fat as we could possibly find in the last three budgets off and properly balanced, and now we're looking at long-term solutions with pensions so that we're not in financial problems long-term. You know if you look at what's happened in the last three years I'm very proud of Tucson and really part of the job we've done.

(Nintzel) Okay, great. And 30 seconds Kelly Lawton, why should people vote for you.

(Lawton) Well, I'll tell you what, If you want pro-active leadership, you want an effective city manager or at least a collaborator in city management, that's me I am a budget manager. I know the insides of how about what it means to manage costs and, when we look at cites and we look at the efficiencies and the deficiencies in our city, they are numerous okay, the lists goes on and on an on. Better parks, better roads police and fire, and a better economy means that you need to vote for Kelly Lawton.

(Nintzel) That is our show for today. I'd like to thank my guests, Tucson city council member Paul Cunningham and Republican challenger Kelly Lawton. I'd also like to thank our supporters at the Arizona Inn and Hotel Congress, as well as our media partners at the Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media, KXCI and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. If you missed any part of today's episode, you can check us out at zonapolitics.com, where you'll alsso find transcripts of this and our past episodes. Be sure to look us up on Facebook.com. Next week, we'll be talking about the latest efforts to regulate dark money, and previewing Modernism Week. Thanks for watching. We'll see you next time.