IT COULD HAVE BEEN WORSE: The Board of Supervisors nailed taxpayers for the third straight year. But after a six-hour clock cleaning from protesters, interwoven with pleas for social-service funding from the non-profit Mafia, the pain was sharply reduced with a property tax increase that was cut by more than half of what originally loomed. The owner of a $100,000 home, outside the Tucson Unified School District, will pay about $32 more per year. The owner of business property on the tax rolls for the same $100,000 will pay about $80 a year more.

It could have been far worse. Taxes, which will be officially levied on August 16, would have soared had Democrat Dan Eckstrom not worked his annual magic to pull the Pima County's budget out of the miasma. Eckstrom moved money, cut spending and made good use out of a $5 million reserve the county has paradoxically built up in the long-term care portion of its deficit-ridden health system.

He had a little help from his fellow Democrats, Raul Grijalva and Sharon Bronson, the Democratic chairwoman. Grijalva actually offered to cut, however slightly, two of his pet projects: the successful Tucson-Pima Library and the unsuccessful Kino Community Hospital.

County taxes to pay for the libraries dropped by 2 cents per $100 of assessed value, or $2 a year for the owner of a home on the tax rolls for $100,000. Libraries, run by the city and jointly funded, will not suffer because of a healthy surplus.

Grijalva also lopped off 2 cents from the tax rate for the Flood Control District. And he proposed a $3 million cut in Kino's proposed budget of $55.5 million. With any luck, that will force Kino's top-heavy administration, which wasted the day sitting at the Board of Supervisors meeting, to cut their own fat.

Finally, there is enough tax base to cut another miniscule amount, this one from secondary taxes used to pay off the bonds voters approved two years ago. That rate was dropped by three pennies, so the owner of that $100,000 house will save $3.

Meanwhile, primary taxes that are used to run the county's daily operations will go up by nearly 39 cents ($39 for a $100,000 home). Taxes will support a $779.7 million budget for fiscal year 1999-2000, that passed on a 4-1 vote, with Republican Ray Carroll dissenting. That actually was good news to the hundreds of tax protesters armed with tea bags who descended on the supervisors Tuesday. The proposed budget bulged at $808 million.

To their credit, supervisors heard everyone who wanted to speak. Other elected officials, particularly those on school boards and the City Council, can take a clue from this. Elected officials get what they deserve. And sometimes it is a thrashing.

Supervisors are hoping they can skate with the chopped increase because homeowners within the high-tax TUSD won't directly pay more. A tax relief provision inserted by voters into the state Constitution limits combined primary property taxes for homeowners to $10 per $100. Homeowners in TUSD have been at that limit for several years. Any tax above that level is spread to all state taxpayers.

That has some fraidy-cats warning that the Maricopa County-dominated Legislature will surely punish Pima County.

Why do we cower in front of Maricopa County legislative leaders who continuously cheat us? The threat is specious for several reasons. One, there are 23 other areas around the state with a combined primary property tax rate at the $10 cap. Is the Legislature going to retaliate against every one of them? Two, the $10 cap is part of the state Constitution; do Maricopa lawmakers think they'll get around the Constitution? Three, state shared revenues -- a pie we've been shorted on for decades -- were increased for Pima County by state law. Will those be repealed, too?

STUDENTS OR SPRAWL? The Amphi School Board is scheduled to pick a new site for a high school on Tuesday, August 10. It's the culmination of more than two years of controversy in the district following the discovery of a nesting endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl across the street from the property where Amphi was preparing to build a high school.

The Board is wrestling between two choices: a school site near students at First Avenue and Tangerine Road in Oro Valley, or a site miles away in Catalina. The first site is more expensive and will cost more to develop, but it will save the district future transportation costs, as well as allow students to bike or walk to school. (To help offset those higher costs, the Oro Valley Town Council has offered to pitch in $1.5 million if the district purchases the Oro Valley site.) The Catalina site, on the other hand, would be ideal for all that pending development in Pinal County.

So will the Board vote for the students or for the sprawl? Board members Nancy Young Wright and Ken Smith are supporting the Oro Valley site, while Gary Woodard and Virginia Houston have been leaning toward Catalina. The tie-breaker will be Board President Richard Scott, who is normally joined at the hip to Woodard and Houston.

That three-member majority has already made the disastrous decision to try to build in pygmy owl habitat -- a decision which cost the district a fortune in legal fees, and held up construction of the badly needed high school for two years. A vote to build at First and Tangerine would mean there'd be no reason to continue that fight, as the two sites are relatively close to one another.

Though the Amphi Board has a history of trying to fix one bad decision with another, Woodard, Houston and Scott yet again may surprise us--this time, by putting their mistakes behind them and giving the students their vote for the Oro Valley site.

MANGLED CARE: With University Medical Center closing its two Family Practice clinics on Oracle Road and on Broadway, we think it's high time city and county politicos start gang-swarming UMC CEOgre Greg Pivirotto. When Thomas Davis went under, it was the decision of a California corporation that no one could reach. But UMC is a local entity, with multiple levels of tax support, and should be beholden on some level to our local elected officials, whose constituents are being screwed. CAP water may bust your pipes, but it's not likely to kill you for at least 30 years or so. UMC's idiocy is affecting midtown and South Tucson now. Attention, Raul -- county health issues are not limited to Kino Hospital.

And why hasn't UMC bothered to inform their AHCCCS and Health Care Group patients of the impending clinic closure? Fee-for-service patients all received slick handouts of the three remaining UMC clinics, while the capitated (i.e., poor or middle-class) patients get to suck eggs and wait for whatever leavings remain. With waiting times for new patients bordering on two months now, one can only conjecture how long it will take the last of those 8,000 patients being cast adrift to be able to get in to see someone. State AHCCCS should be scrutinizing UMC's contract to see if poor patients' rights are being violated. UMC's last catchy slogan was "All the care you'll ever need." They oughta change it to "All the care you'll never get."

TRUNG FOR MAYOR: Mania for the UA football team has so swept the leaders of the Growth Lobby at the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association that a recent flyer billed the group's upcoming August 10 mayoral forum as "Canidates Night." Many SAHBA members probably believe star running back Trung Canidate is now running for mayor.

SAHBA's little party on August 10 at the Doubletree Hotel actually was designed to promote only the candidates the builders are backing. For $23, we expect a little more flavor at our political dinners. Even longtime members are grumbling at this cheap trick to exclude candidates the big shots don't like. Even perennial flakes like Ed Finkelstein were given the opportunity to speak at this annual dinner in the past.

ANOTHER FUNNY FORUM: The Executive Women's Council is hosting a mayoral forum August 19, but only the female candidates are invited. This savvy group included Emily Machala, the pleasant and funny retired school teacher who made another brief run for the Democratic nomination before dropping out with no hope of qualifying for the ballot. We hope that Pat Darcy gets invited to a male-only political forum.

FUNNY MONEY: Auditors and the city clerk are giving a pass to City Councilwoman Shirley Scott, a Democrat seeking a second term in southeast side Ward 4, for some campaign finance irregularities uncovered by auditors last month. At issue were five $10 contributions Scott collected. Four were without required pledge cards that include a signature line and one was listed as coming from someone who denied making any such cash contribution to Scott. "These contributions were received in the mail, presumed to be legitimate on their face and immediately deposited in the usual fashion," Scott, her husband Joe, and campaign treasurer Robert C. Morgan stated in a July 19 affidavit. "We were unaware that acceptance of these cash contributions was in violation of any law and did not intend to violate the law," the three said in their joint affidavit.

City Clerk Kathleen Detrick said in a letter to Scott that she "concluded that the discrepancies identified in your records by the city's independent auditor were not made 'knowingly' or 'intentionally.' "

The allure of the city matching funds program has led to problems for some candidates in the past. Council candidates qualify for city funds once they collect 200 contributions of at least $10 from city residents. Some candidates have phonied up contributions -- an unwise move that led to the felony conviction of a campaign worker in 1991.

Scott has raised $16,035 so far in her race to keep newcomer Debra L. Johnson from taking the Ward 4 seat in the Democratic primary.

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