Steering City Hall

A mayoral hopeful talks about budget priorities, mini-dorms and the downtown streetcar

Democrat Jonathan Rothschild recently announced he would make his political debut with a run for mayor this year. Here's an edited outtake from a recent interview; find more Q&A with Rothschild at The Range, Tucson Weekly's daily dispatch.

Who is Jonathan Rothschild?

Jonathan Rothschild is a third-generation Tucsonan. His grandmother came here in 1942, a single mother with her 14-year-old son, my father. She opened a used furniture store down on South Sixth Avenue called Vanity Fair and worked—not there, but worked—every day until she was 96. My father went to Tucson High and went in the service in World War II and came back on the G.I. Bill and went to the UA law school and started a law firm with Alfredo Marquez. That law firm still exists and I've managed it for the last 12 years. I'm a native Tucsonan. I was born here in 1955 and when I was born, there were 50,000 people in this valley. So I think I've seen both the good and the bad that's occurred.

I've been real involved in community affairs. I've been president of Casa 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 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 toward.

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.

There's 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 are 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.

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 will 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.

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.

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