There's one thing that all of the candidates for mayor of Tucson in 2011 agree on: Tucson is on the wrong track.
Democrat Jonathan Rothschild fears the city he grew up in is "slipping away." Republican Rick Grinnell complains that voters "don't trust this city government." And Green Mary DeCamp says that city residents need "radical change." (Indeed, DeCamp's low-budget campaign includes proposals so far outside of the mainstream that it's difficult to even place them in the same context as proposals by Rothschild and Grinnell.)
There's little doubt that the city of Tucson has not yet escaped the economic woes that have rocked the nation. Unemployment in Tucson is at 8.4 percent, according to the Arizona Department of Administration. The construction industry, once a driver of Tucson's economy, is at a virtual standstill since the collapse of the housing market. And because people don't have money to spend, many small businesses are struggling to keep their doors open.
Those economic problems have had a big impact at City Hall. The Tucson City Council has cut general-fund spending from $493 million in fiscal year 2008 to $425 million in the current fiscal year.
That's meant that city pools have closed. Road work has dried up. Parks and Recreation courses have been cancelled. Funding for community celebrations such as the Winterhaven Festival of Lights, Tucson Meet Yourself and the Fourth of July fireworks has been slashed.
The news is not all bad. The Pascua Yaqui tribe and other sponsors have funded the Fourth of July fireworks; the Pascua Yaqui tribe has also teamed up with auto-dealer Jim Click to keep the Christmas lights on at Winterhaven. Tucson Meet Yourself will still be serving up a smorgasbord of intercultural of music, dance and food-on-a-stick at El Presidio Park later this month.
And downtown—despite complaints that the city's efforts at Rio Nuevo redevelopment have come to naught—is part of Tucson that is showing bright signs of life, with Tucson Electric Power building a new headquarters across the street from Janos Wilder's new Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails. Businesses and nonprofits such as Providence Corporation, Madden Media and the Sonoran Institute have moved downtown. Work is underway on a modern streetcar that will link downtown and the UA, and student housing is now being planned for downtown's east end. Restaurants like Hub Restaurant and Ice Creamery, 47 Scott and Sparkroot are drawing rave reviews and a steady stream of hungry customers. Every month, Second Saturdays events bring hundreds of families to downtown; last weekend's Fall Club Crawl®, sponsored by the Tucson Weekly, brought an estimated 11,000 people into downtown for an evening of revelry on Congress Street and Fourth Avenue.
Still, despite the bright signs, there are plenty of complaints about the amount of red tape that binds Tucson business owners. Interim City Manager Richard Miranda says "that whole issue of the city not being business-friendly is one that comes in over and over again to me. I hear it from everybody."
Rothschild, who has been the managing partner of the Mesch, Clark and Rothschild law firm, says his experience in business law will help him find ways to make it easier for businesses to navigate the permit process at City Hall.
"I'm a person who has actually worked with businesses and grown businesses, so I know that business community," Rothschild says. "I have a sense of what their aggravations are and what their strengths are."
He promises to hire a small-business ombudsman in the mayor's office and finish an ongoing review of the city's land-use code within the first 180 days of taking office.
"Let's just get the thing where it's more user-friendly," Rothschild says.
Grinnell says that he wouldn't need a business ombudsman, because he would handle the job of helping small businesses himself. He vows to identify 100 local businesses that are ready to expand and help them as soon as he's in office.
"Our local businesses are ambassadors to people who want to come to Tucson," says Grinnell, who believes he's more suited than Rothschild for sorting out the city's relations with business, because he's worked with city departments in the past.
"I know the personalities in the city," Grinnell says. "I know the individuals. I've been doing this for 20 years. This is not an arena you walk into and pretend to have the answers."
Both candidates say that improving the business environment will bring more sales-tax dollars to the city's coffers. Since 2008, the city has seen sales-tax revenues evaporate as the economy has tanked. In fiscal year 2007, the city collected $202.3 million in sales taxes; last year, that figure dropped to an estimated $159 million. The City Council has had to eliminate nearly 1,100 jobs, leaving city staffing at 1995 levels. The employees who are left have been forced to take furloughs.
Meanwhile, a variety of fees and taxes have been increased, including utility taxes, trash fees, water rates and the cost of KIDCO, a city after-school program. Citizens are lucky if their residential streets are repaired. Pools have been closed, and many adult sports leagues have been eliminated.
Rothschild says the city has done a relatively good job of tightening the belt.
"Every time you have to cut, it's hard, and nobody likes to do that," Rothschild says. "I think they've been pretty good in being across the board, bringing together the people who work with the city, and bringing together the administrators and finding where the needs are. My whole goal is to help rebuild this economy so that we can get back the basic services that we all really desperately want and need."
Grinnell argues that city departments haven't done enough. "Every department can run more efficiently," he says.
Grinnell came out of the gate following the primary with an idea for efficiency: Rather than increasing the monthly trash fee by 50 cents earlier this year, the city should have cut back service to once every 10 days or once every two weeks, Grinnell says—a plan that would violate a state law requiring collection of garbage at least once per week. (See "Talking Trash," Sept. 22, and "Trash Detail," The Skinny, Sept. 29.) Grinnell called reducing the garbage service an example of the "common business sense" he'd bring to City Hall.
Rothschild pounced on Grinnell's proposal, calling it "beyond any form of reason. ... I can't imagine what would happen to the washes, to the arroyos, to the streets, to the restaurateurs and the people who generate a lot of garbage—what would happen to the smell of our community if we went to collecting the trash once every 10 days."
Grinnell's proposal to cut back trash collection hit with such a thud that he's since been walking it back, although he has not returned several phone calls from the Weekly asking about his latest stance on the issue.
Another big area of disagreement between the candidates is bus service. Grinnell sees Sun Tran as an ideal place to cut the budget.
This year, the city is budgeted to provide a general-fund subsidy of nearly $27.4 million for Sun Tran, up from an estimated $25.5 million last year.
Earlier this year, the City Council boosted from standard fares $1.25 to $1.50. More controversially, the council raised low-income fares by a dime, from 40 cents a ride to 50 cents. Still, that was 10 cents less than the Citizen Transportation Advisory Committee had recommended.
Grinnell says the council should have increased the low-income fares by the full 20 cents. He favors future increases in fares and cutting back on routes to save money.
"I think Sun Tran is over-budgeted," Grinnell says. "I think we have to go to Sun Tran and say, 'We have to find a better way to do this.'"
Rothschild says the council made the right decision on fares, but he's prepared to consider increases in the future.
"We need to be looking at public transportation as a strength in this city," says Rothschild, who says that his daughter rode the city bus to her high school, and several employees of his downtown law firm commute on the bus. "That's one of the things that make a strong city—a good public-transportation system."
The candidates also differ on the question of the so-called mini-dorms, large rental units that are being built in residential neighborhoods around the UA. Many of these developments have been built by developer Michael Goodman, who has clashed with neighbors who complain that his developments don't fit in with the existing homes, and that his buildings house so many students that they disrupt the quality of life.
The city has responded by designating the developments as "group dwellings" rather than single-family homes—and as such, the mini-dorms violate zoning laws.
Goodman has threatened legal action against the city, but he's also entered into mediation with representatives from the city and the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association to discuss how to resolve their differences. (See our Currents section this week for an update.)
Rothschild says the city staff made the right decision in redefining Goodman's developments as "group dwellings," because it forced him to the table.
"It's not wrong to try to get a good, fair ordinance," Rothschild says. "That's what staff is charged with. ... What they're doing is the best way to do it."
Grinnell disagrees. He says that the city "overstepped its boundaries, and it's going to cost the taxpayers money," because Goodman is likely to sue the city.
He says that a better solution would be sitting down with Goodman to come to an agreement without legal pressure.
"How do we bring them together and talk with Michael Goodman?" Grinnell asks. "When do we sit down and say, 'Where is the balance here?'"
Grinnell believes neighbors are overreacting regarding Goodman's developments.
"They're clean; they crisp; they're different," he says. "Yes, they're big, and they obstruct the view, and you're going to have some noise. But they're clean. ... And the neighborhood needs to quit fighting this. It's a certain, small group of people who are raising a whole lot of issues."
Grinnell sees the mini-dorm debate as an example of how interests in the city fight one another in bad times.
"It's a symptom of a much bigger problem," Grinnell says.
If you're measuring by conventional standards, Rothschild holds many advantages in the race. There are more than 113,000 Democrats and just about 63,000 Republicans in the city of Tucson—and for the first time this year, every voter will get a ballot in the mail, increasing the likelihood that Democrats will cast a ballot.
Rothschild has been prepping for the race for more than a year, putting together a broad coalition of support. He's raised more than $257,000, according to campaign-finance reports filed last week, and still has more than $144,000 in the bank.
Rothschild is landing endorsements not only from traditional Democratic allies like the Sierra Club, but also from the Tucson Police Officers Association and the Tucson Fire Fighters Association.
Grinnell, by contrast, got into the race late, after the two Republicans who were seeking the seat were disqualified due to a lack of proper signatures on their nominating positions. He had to assemble a write-in campaign on the fly. His offices are in the back of campaign chairman John Wesley Miller's office on Broadway Boulevard, but they're nothing fancy.
"This is a blue-collar campaign," Grinnell says.
Grinnell has raised just $20,365 for the campaign and had only $5,885 in the bank as of Sept. 19, leaving him with little money to introduce himself to voters.
But Grinnell believes he's got momentum. He notes that after getting more than 7,700 votes in the August GOP primary, he's the "highest write-in vote-getter in the history of Arizona politics."
He has some reason to be hopeful. Voters are in an unpredictable mood. Two years ago, Republican Steve Kozachik knocked off a Democratic incumbent, Nina Trasoff. Another Republican, Ben Buehler-Garcia, came within 200 votes of beating Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich.
In that Ward 3 race, Mary DeCamp captured about 6 percent of the vote, nearly becoming a spoiler. DeCamp is back on the ballot this year in the mayor's race.
But win or lose, Grinnell says the race is not just about whether he becomes the figurehead of the city of Tucson.
"This campaign, I'm not running to be the mayor," Grinnell says. "I'm running just to do the job. I don't need the title; I don't need to be important."