The Skinny

WILL SHE OR WON'T SHE? Ever since radio maestro John C. Scott tried to suss out Republican Tucson City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar's intentions a few weeks back, political tongues have been wagging about whether she'll give up her Ward 3 seat to take on Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson.

Bronson, a Democrat who's currently chair of the county board, is likely the most vulnerable of the sitting board members. Although District 3 has a Democratic voter registration advantage (made stronger by some savvy gerrymandering a while back on Bronson's part), many of these are redneck Dems who could swing the GOP direction.

The advantages of serving on the board for Dunbar are obvious: County supervisors make twice as much money, plus she no longer has to sit between bickering Democrats Shirley Scott and Carol West.

It's hardly a sure thing for Dunbar, who has been blessed with weak opponents in the races she's won. She defeated Democrat Brian Fagin, who sorta resembled Cosmo Kramer without the grace, to win a seat in the state House of Representatives in 1998, but when she tried to move up to an open Arizona Senate seat two years later, she lost to the much more cunning Andy Nichols. She made her political comeback in 2001, winning a City Council seat against political disaster Paula Aboud, who failed to capitalize on the natural Democratic registration advantage inside the city limits.

But then again, Bronson is hardly a powerhouse. She nearly lost to a political rookie in 2000, when property-rights advocate Barney Brenner poured a bunch of his own money into his campaign to unseat her. Brenner is willing to go another round this year, but he might be dissuaded if Dunbar proves willing to enter the fray.

So will she or won't she? Stay tuned--and for the next round, let's start speculating on Dunbar's possible replacement on the City Council.

FLOATERS: The Pima County Board of Supervisors, which has consistently raised sewer rates in recent years, soon will consider sewer increases that could reach nearly 51 percent over four years.

It's an ugly turnaround for county Wastewater Management, so rich just five or six years ago that it subsidized Kino Community Hospital and some general fund departments. Now the department is flat broke. And don't let them blame it all on the predictable break of a main line in aging Barrio Hollywood on the westside in September 2002. There were previous rate increases and bond funds to keep the department, well, flush.

With a budget this year of $81.5 million, Wastewater has been in serious trouble for more than six months. The department was close to defaulting on an $11.8 million debt payment due last July 1.

Wastewater, which has run the whole shebang for all metropolitan properties not on septic or private systems since 1979, is one of the county departments that runs on the revenues it earns. A day before the debt payment was due, the department had just $2.4 million available, according to a Aug. 6 memo county Finance Director Carol Bonchalk sent to Pima Prime Minister Chuck Huckelberry.

County Treasurer Beth Ford, a Republican, averted the default by covering the "Wastewater cash deficit with general fund monies."

The new proposed increases were anticipated last summer. But it likely won't be enough.

"While it is probable that Wastewater Management's cash will increase during fiscal year 03/04 due to fee increases and a potential loan to cover the costs of the Randolph (Park) Reclamation Project, the increase will not be sufficient to cover all operating and maintenance costs per their current budget ..." Bonchalk noted.

The problem?

Wastewater staff, Bonchalk told Huckelberry, "is not demonstrating an understanding of planned, basic fiscal responsibility nor the significance of defaulting on debt service or meeting the other requirements of bonded indebtedness."

Huckelberry approved Bonchalk's four-point plan that included a complete revision of Wastewater's operating and capital-improvements budgets and related cash-flow analysis. Until that was done, Wastewater was barred from beginning any capital projects or "proceed(ing) with new contracts for existing projects." A hiring freeze was put in place, and, to really make the Wastewater bosses seem like children, Deputy County Administrator John Bernal had to approve all significant purchases.

The problem, Huckelberry told Bernal in handwritten notes decorating Bonchalk's memo, "needs some immediate attention."

Huckelberry approved all Bonchalk's recommendations. Only Supervisors Ray Carroll, a Republican who has been critical of each sewer rate increase, and Richard Elias, the Democrat who managed to survive political fallout from the sewer break in his district, are skeptical of the new rate plan.

CROWDED LOBBY: Other than pushing for the power to levy a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements (lotsa luck with that one!), Pima County's legislative agenda is mostly defensive this year. Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry mostly wants to avoid having more expenses dumped on the county, as the state has done to help cover its shortfalls during the last couple of years, and to dodge new state efforts to meddle in local issues such as the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

It's an awfully small world when it comes to the county's legislative lobbying team. Tucson lawyer and Republican Party big shot John Munger holds a lucrative $125,000 annual contract to work the county's agenda at the state Capitol.

Munger wormed his way onto the county gravy train back in 1989 as a perceived accommodation to then-Republican supes Greg Lunn, a former state senator, and the lovable Reg Morrison. It was damn funny a year later when both Lunn and Morrison urged county administrators to dump Munger. No favors needed, they said. But Munger wormed back in as soon as the plot he participated in produced the Republican county coup that put Ed Moore, Mike Boyd and Paul Marsh in charge of the Board of Supes 11 years ago.

Munger and his crew also represent Clear Channel and the media behemoth's billboard biz that can't help but flout county and state laws. The county is now looking to crack down on a number of illegal billboards.

Chief Deputy County Administrator Martin Willett, who directs county lobbyists, sees no direct conflict between the county legislative program and the laws the firm's billboard clients seek.

Munger's real ace in the hole is Michael Racy, a talented, scrupulous and efficient dynamo who works under the Munger flag. He does most of the county's bidding at the Legislature.

How good is Racy? Well, his other big client is none other than Legendary Land Speculator Don Diamond. Gee, we can't imagine that Don's interests would ever come in conflict with the county's.

GAS PAINS: TW columnist Renee Downing makes a good point this week when she mocks the state Department of Real Estate's effort to make homebuilders disclose whether a gas line was "in proximity" to new development.

Real Estate Department Director Elaine Richardson, the former state senator from Tucson, says developers will just have to use their own judgment in determining what "proximity" means.

But the matter becomes even more absurd when you realize that the route of the pipeline is a closely guarded state secret these days, making it just about impossible for most developers to even know if they're in "proximity" to the pipeline.

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