Taxing Times

The City Council is talking trash.

Hold on to your wallets, Tucson. While the City Council may have avoided raising taxes this year, talk of trash and traffic problems will probably mean higher taxes 12 months from now.

As reported in the Weekly some time ago, Mayor Bob Walkup is expected to push for a May election to increase the city sales tax by a half cent for transportation issues. If the voters approve, those funds would be used for additional roadway maintenance, public transit and some new street construction.

At just about the same time, City Manager James Keene will probably be returning with his proposed $6-a-month environmental fee. If supported by the Council, this tax would require every household in town to pay equally for the cost of landfill closures and pollution mitigation requirements.

Even though the Council shot down the idea of the environmental fee during this year's budget discussions, Keene intends to keep coming back with the proposal, according to Solid Waste Management department director Eliseo Garza.

A spokesman for Keene is a little more discreet. Starting this fall, the city will sponsor a series of community discussions on solid waste issues, says Bruce Messelt. The topic of these meetings will be: We as a community have this problem; how do you want to pay for it?

Messelt says the Council will get the results of the discussions in the spring. He adds, however, that forecasts already project a $45 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year, so the likelihood of a tax increase is very high.

Earlier this month, Keene told the Council the city's environmental costs, excluding garbage pickup but including landfill remediation and closure along with expanding the huge southside Los Reales facility, would total more than $97 million over the next five years. Of that amount, about one-fourth could be paid for with general obligation bond monies, and another portion from a $29.3 million environmental reserve fund. Without new taxes, however, the remaining $45 million would have to continue to come from the city's general fund, which is generated primarily from sales tax receipts.

To eliminate the need for the general-fund subsidies of these environmental costs, in April Keene proposed the $6-a-month fee, which would have provided almost $8.5 million annually. He told the Council at that time, "Reliance on the general fund means that solid waste management services must compete with other high-priority services, such as public safety. This approach is a failure."

In the short term, the Council chose not to follow Keene's advice. After all, it is an election year. But with growing environmental cleanup costs looming in the near future, where will the money come from to pay the ever-increasing waste bills?

Among these costs in the next two years are the closure of the Irvington and Mullins landfills. The latter, near Speedway Boulevard and Kolb Road, is already in the process of being closed. That requires several steps, including gas mitigation, addressing stormwater drainage issues, and capping the old landfill. The estimated costs of these projects is over $7 million, but the city has only $2.6 million to spend.

To close the Irvington landfill near Harrison Road, the city is $700,000 short of the $2.3 million required. Since most of the work at both landfills is legally mandated, the city must come up with the money somehow.

In addition, over the next few years several other unfunded miscellaneous landfill issues will have to be addressed. These include $1.1 million needed to cap the long-abandoned Tumamoc Hill landfill, $800,000 for improvements at already closed sites around town, and $300,000 to begin work on a new disposal cell at Los Reales.

So where is all this money going to come from? The Council could choose to continue using general-fund monies to pay much of the bill. But as was seen in this year's budget battle, with a slowing economy and growing demands by city employees for larger pay increases, this could prove very difficult.

The Council might also dip into the $29 million environmental reserve account to pay these cleanup costs. This obviously is a short-term fix, since within a few years all this money would be gone while the city's landfill financial needs would just keep growing with an expanding population.

Garza of the Solid Waste Management department thinks using the reserve fund money this way is a bad idea. "Those funds weren't set up for landfill closure activities," he says, "but for emergencies at landfills such as those caused by flooding."

The final choice the Council has been given is establishing the environmental fee, a politically explosive proposition. As Councilmember Carol West says, "Any time you talk about raising taxes in Tucson, you're going to have trouble."

West also believes the possibility of two tax increase proposals arising next year, one for transportation and the other for landfill environmental costs, could be a real problem. With a discreet chuckle, she says that addressing transportation issues is a very popular topic among the people of her eastside ward.

While the decision about how to pay for required landfill costs has been delayed, so has the city's transition to the long anticipated but never implemented program of once-a-week garbage collection combined with once-a-week recycling. Even though the Council voted in December to begin implementing the program in the new fiscal year, which begins on Sunday, Garza says that when they decided not to implement the environmental fee, the one-and-one program was put on hold.

"The start of the program was tied to the fee," he says. "It was going to cost $1.5 million in the first year" to inaugurate the three-year transition to the new service. "Maybe now it will begin in July of 2002."

Bruce Messelt of the City Manager's office adds, "As of now there are no plans to begin the one-and-one program by itself without the environmental fee. But this will be part of the discussion at the community meetings."

Carol West is bothered by the delay in instituting a program that many people believe is the only way Tucson will ever be able to divert anything more than the anemic 9 percent of the waste stream it does presently. Even though this is by far the lowest rate among Western communities surveyed by the city, West says that delays "seem to be the modus operandi around here."