THE WHEELS SPIN: Have you seen the latest TV spot from City Manager James "Commander" Keene? In his push for voters to approve a half-cent transportation sales tax next May, Keene tells viewers that Tucsonans have said they want three things: (1) repair of residential streets, (2) widening of major streets and (3) "something new," which Keene translates as grade-separated--er, that is, continuous-flow intersections.

Of course, when actually asked about options in two separate polls (one scientific survey of 400 Tucson voters and a wider questionnaire filled out by about 16,000 people at public meetings), Tucsonans had a chance to tell city leaders exactly what they thought of GSIs--and they rated them down at the bottom of priorities.

So Keene is all but lying to us with our tax dollars. Now that's a way to sell voters on the plan! We can't wait to see the rest of this "education campaign" our tax dollars will be buying.

The city's survey showed people preferred a better bus system over GSIs, but the council decided to spend the big bucks on three of the continuous-flow intersections--Grant and Campbell, Grant and Kolb, and 22nd Street and Kino Boulevard--with a cost of at least $50 million. (Transit, by comparison, gets an extra $7.2 million a year under the proposal.) Plus, more money will be spent on Grant Road at two more intersections, Alvernon Way and Craycroft Road, to prepare them for the even more expensive GSIs of the next decade. At that rate, Grant Road will be our crosstown parkway somewhere around 2240 A.D.

If there was a groundswell for continuous-flow intersections, which allow one road to dip beneath another, then city officials wouldn't be desperately trying to find ways to ignore the city charter's Neighborhood Protection Amendment, which requires each intersection to be approved by voters after the design phase. These projects will be exempted from that requirement as part of the May vote.

We're already hearing the quiet beating of war drums from those opposed to the sales tax. Expect it to get louder as the election approaches.

CASH CRUNCH: Even while they're hoping voters will give them that extra half-cent for transportation, city officials are facing a budget crunch thanks to a slowing economy.

This week, council members were told the city's 2003 budget, which begins in July, has a $45 million deficit. City Manager James Keene has already instituted a hiring freeze and told department heads they'll have to do without an inflationary increase.

But even then, the budget is out of whack, so Keene wants to trim spending on the Fire Department and the cops by 5 percent and thinks other departments should prepare for cuts of up to 10 percent.

That puts the Mayor Bob Walkup and his "new optimism" council in a bit of a bind. They're stuck figuring out how to cut services while asking for a tax increase. Tucsonans are going to love that one.

And what about the city's desperate annexation attempts north of the Rillito? Mayor Bob has made capturing the Catalina Foothills and Casas Adobes areas a priority now that those mad days of willy-nilly incorporation are behind us (except for those Tortolitans still hanging on by the skin of their torts). We're sure the foothills folks will sign right up when they hear we're trimming the police force and cutting back on firefighters. Maybe we can offer them a garbage fee to go with their additional property tax.

We hear Mayor Bob will soon be pushing state lawmakers to loosen annexation laws to make it easier to assimilate the Pima County holdouts. It's a fight he has to win if he hopes to bring 'em into the city limits sometime in the next quarter century.

LAND WAR: The Pima County Board of Supervisors finally got around to addressing land-use in a big way with an update of the Pima County Comprehensive Plan this week. The supes followed Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry's radical recommendation to plan for development in areas that have infrastructure and are less ecologically sensitive.

The plan had the Growth Lobby squealing, even though it doesn't change any zoning, just the plan for future zoning. Hey, guys, it's called "land speculation" for a reason--it's not a sure thing. The Skinny lost a lot of dough in the stock market this year thanks to changing economic conditions. Can we call that a taking? Didn't think so. Neither should these bozos. You win some, you lose some.

The pugnacious "Sugar" Ray Carroll, who has been most vocal on county matters in recent months, took a last-minute dive on this vote--perhaps the biggest of his career--because his father-in-law is a partner in a group that owns a substantial chunk of land that's included in the new Comprehensive Plan. Ray could have recused himself from that section of the vote, but instead skipped the vote altogether, claiming a conflict of interest.

Now it's time for the board to come up with some realistic impact fees. How long, we wonder, will that take? It's a debate that has been put off for far too long.

LAST DANCE AT THE EMPRESS? The city's oldest smut palace, the Empress Theater at 3832 E. Speedway Blvd., may be facing the final curtain. The city couldn't afford to buy the theater during the Speedway widening project back in the early 1990s, but it does own about two acres of vacant land surrounding the porn palace. So our wise civic leaders are selling that prime real estate at a fire-sale price, provided the buyer also purchases and destroys the Empress.

The morning daily has cheered the move, saying last Sunday that the Empress didn't project the right image for our sophisticated metropolis. So what's going to take its place? Another boring Walgreeen's, symbolic of our proud welcome to cookie-cutter chain stores.

If we continue to drive the mom-and-pop adult-entertainment stores out of biz, pretty soon we'll only have big-box chain porn shops. Sure, the prices are cheap, but selection is so limited! And don't even get us started on the wages.

MAKE A NEW PLAN, STAN: Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Estanislado Y. Paz bagged holiday loot last week and stuffed the stockings of his bloated, 14-person executive staff with similar 4 percent raises in moves approved by split votes of the TUSD board.

Call it the Miracle of 1010 E. 10th St.

Just four months ago, Paz and his craven board majority--Joel Ireland, Mary Belle McCorkle and Carolyn Kemmeries--lamented that the district was too broke to boost exec pay. The lumbering district was $10 million in the hole, could not properly supply students or teachers and had to raise property taxes by about 10 percent and still cut per-pupil expenditures.

What a difference those high taxes make.

All's well, despite McCorkle's shrill cry about how hard the district has had it this year. Tell it to the business owners you screwed with the tax increase.

Only Judy Burns voted against Paz's pay raise, which increases his annual salary to $174,720 and his total yearly package to $214,220. She did so apologetically and with a delusional plea for Paz not to leave. Why would he leave on a 4-1 vote for mo' money?

Burns and Rosalie Lopez voted against the 4 percent increases dished out to Paz's primas and primos.

Funny how none of it was performance-based. Inequities abound. One assistant superintendent, for example, literally falls asleep in meetings. No problem. Total pay jumps to $91,180.

Chief Hack Larry Williams is also now up to $91,180 a year. Next time you deal with him, ask yourself and then the board if he's worth it.

Ireland, who has replaced Big Ed Moore as Tucson's Joe McCarthy, first, laughably, said board members were acting illegally if they looked at job evaluations. He then hinted that the district would have more legal trouble if it didn't boost the pay of women not making as much as Lynn Webster. As executive director of operations, Webster now makes $88,881 a year. He's the guy who couldn't quite get the heaters on in the schools.

Tell the brats to wear their coats!

For all that kind of money, whenever we see Webster or TUSD's long line of lawyers from DeConcini Yetwin McDonald & Lacy, we're reminded of Tuddy's from Goodfellas when the feds came into the pizza/social club to arrest his brother Paulie: "Whoever sold you those suits had a wonderful sense of humor."

Ireland is clearly trying to take care of his pal Jane Ann Butler, the meddling, control-freak senior counsel, and Joan Richardson, the human resources boss who is never too busy to help Ireland with a hire. They are paid $81,859, as is Toni L. Woodruff (formerly Cordova), the district's head PR woman. That's right, taxpayers are giving up 81 large for a PR woman.

Question to Ireland and McCorkle: Is that for the children?

The joke second only to the tax rates that made this all possible is that TUSD went to great lengths to hide the raises from the public and the docile daily press. Information should have been released months ago--because it was in the budget and planned for a series of agendas earlier this year--or at least with agenda material released the Friday before the board's Tuesday meeting. Instead, it was coughed up at the last minute.

The district violated the Open Meeting and Public Records laws by not providing the list of salary increases when they were readily available and by not providing them to the public within 24 hours of the board meeting.

Paz's lame excuse was that he asked staff to work the numbers for his review. Butler also provided a black hole. How long does it take to add 4 percent to the salaries of 14 people? Not long. Even when adding longevity pay for six and education stipends for three, it took the fat fingers of The Skinny about 10 minutes.

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