What About Bob?

With A New Mayor Gripping The Old Municipal Joystick, Tucson Rumbles Toward A 21st-Century Minefield.

THE FIRST REPUBLICAN to be elected mayor since Lew Murphy stepped down in 1987, gregarious Bob Walkup has been enjoying quite the honeymoon since his upset victory over Democrat Molly McKasson last November. The business community is firmly behind him, while neighborhoods remain hopeful he'll follow through on his campaign promises to protect their quality of life.

A former Hughes executive, Walkup last week focused his first state-of-the-city address on the importance of developing a more skilled workforce. But he touched on many of the issues facing the community -- transportation, water supply, growth, poverty, school violence and the hope of a revitalized downtown with Rio Nuevo.

Walkup ran on the promise of bringing people together to build consensus, and he elaborated on that theme last week before a warmly supportive audience of 800. The crowd rose to its feet as Walkup was introduced, and gave him another standing O when he finished. This municipal hug-fest was co-sponsored by the Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Southside Neighborhood Association Presidential Partnership and Greater Tucson Leadership. But, as a candidate who was strongly backed by the Growth Lobby last November, the question remains whether Walkup has a real commitment to the neighborhoods or is paying them lip service -- and a number of looming issues will test that commitment in the months to come.

TO BEGIN WITH, there are ever-increasing growth pressures building within the city limits, particularly in the city's southeastern Ward 4. (Growth along the northern border is limited by the incorporation of Casas Adobes, which the city continues to fight in court, and the reluctance of Catalina Foothills residents to agree to annexation.)

With the northwest building boom playing out thanks to increasing environmental restrictions, developers are looking for a new playground -- and southeastern Tucson fits the bill nicely. Already, Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott is complaining about the problems development is bringing to the area.

Scott had better brace herself, because more development is on the way -- and soon. In a backroom deal last year, legendary land speculator Don Diamond and homebuilder Bill Estes brokered an arrangement with the State Land Department to create a development plan for 7,700 acres -- nearly 12 square miles -- of taxpayer-owned property stretching between Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and the Rincon Valley. The Rincon Valley happens to be home to Diamond's Rocking K Ranch, which was rezoned for 6,500 homes earlier this decade by the county Board of Supervisors; while the property remains outside the city's boundaries, city officials have had unsuccessful talks with Diamond in the past about annexing the area.

With new growth demanding new resources, Ward 3 Councilman Jerry Anderson says one of his key goals for the year ahead is land-use planning: "How do we balance the needs of Tucson's older central city against the newer areas that have been developed recently and are going to be developed, maybe in the next three to five to 10 years, both within our current city boundaries and, who knows, beyond the current city boundaries?"

Anderson alludes to the possibility that the city may attempt to annex 34 square miles on Tucson's southern border, stretching the city limits to the edge of Sahuarita. The land is mostly undeveloped, leaving the city on the hook for infrastructure like roads, sidewalks, water lines and streetlights, as well as ongoing expenses like park maintenance and police and fire protection.

"It could be, in one way, an exciting opportunity for Tucson to plan right for a change," Anderson says. "We certainly don't seem to be doing a lot of that now, nor have we in the past. So someone else can challenge that and say, 'You certainly haven't set a good example up to now, why should we think you'll be able to do a better job with this?' I think that's a pretty strong argument."

Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt says the annexation gives the city control over the land's development. "If it's under the city's control, then the city has some type of way to manage all that real estate," he says. "Now whether the governing body does that or just allows things to happen is the next question."

Newly elected Ward 2 Councilwoman Carol West, who is taking Janet Marcus' eastside seat, is ambivalent about the potential land grab. "I talked to the police chief about that," West says. "I said, 'What if we do this?' He said, 'I have to have more resources.' ...I am in favor of annexation, really. But then when I look at the other side of the coin, and talk to the police chief and hear Shirley talk about some of the impacts that she's seeing in her ward, then I have to do a little reality check."

In his speech last week, Walkup acknowledged the obvious: "We are growing, and we need to manage the process wisely and fairly so that everyone pays their fair share. We don't want to be Phoenix, but we don't want to be a ghost town, either."

"Fair share" is one of those loosely defined term politicians love, because it can mean just about anything, depending on your perspective. Throughout his campaign, Walkup stressed his opposition to impact fees, which he called unfair. (He pledged instead, as Republican mayor, to bring home more transportation dollars from the GOP-controlled Arizona Legislature -- a notion even fellow Republican Ronstadt considers a long shot.)

City staffers are working on various impact fee proposals, which are expected to reach the council next month. The process is sure to spark a furious fight from the development community, which fiercely resisted the fees when Pima County debated the idea in 1995. Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors rejected staff's proposed fees of more than $3,000 and settled on a transportation impact fee of roughly $1,500.

The idea of a city impact fee brings a mixed reaction from council members.

"I'm open to other options, but I still have not heard of any better option that other communities have adopted than impact fees," says Anderson. West also backs impact fees, as does Ward 1 Councilman José Ibarra.

But other council members are less supportive of the idea. Ronstadt sees the fees as "inherently regressive, because if you look at the amount of home that people can buy, impact fees actually price a lot of people out of a home."

Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal worries impact fees will create a ripple effect that will increase housing prices throughout the community. He says the council needs to avoid "symbolic solutions that backfire on the very people we're protecting." He instead supports ending a city policy that provides a three-year sales-tax waiver on construction in newly annexed areas.

THE BILL FOR new development is coming just as the city's Back to Basics program is working to revitalize the inner city. Leal wants to increase spending for the program, up to $1.2 million from its current budget of roughly $800,000. He'd also like to include small businesses.

West says a top priority is developing the inner-city infrastructure. She remembers coming across many crumbling sidewalks while campaigning near downtown last year.

But she acknowledges the competition for city dollars between the inner city and the periphery sets up tough choices for council members.

"Of course, I always say that we can have it all, but we have to figure out how, how we can have it all, especially at a time when our shared revenues are decreasing.... But this is the time of fat in the land, and the famine is gonna come. So we have to figure out, during the fat, how we can reassess and retool, so that we can meet some of these demands."

As the city grows, the traffic problems intensify. "One of our biggest challenges will be, of course, transportation," says Walkup, who wants to begin implementing the $5.6 billion, 22-year transportation plan developed by the Pima Association of Governments. He called for "better roads, more sidewalks and more streetlights," as well as improving pedestrian safety and the public transportation network.

A freeway remains an unlikely solution, despite pressure from the Growth Lobby.

"From their point of view, it allows growth to occur beyond the boundaries in an easier way, because people can live clear across town and get to work on the other side of town a lot easier than they can now," says Anderson. "I think it can further divide the community and obviously it can tax a community, where they could be using those revenues in a much better way."

West expressed her support for a freeway after her election, but she's backing away from the idea now. "I don't know where we'd put it. But it sure woke people up. I got lots of calls, and that's what I was really after. And my point is, that's where we're headed," West warns, unless Tucsonans embrace public transit.

"I think a ring road, maybe around the city," West muses. "Golf Links is certainly a start, although there are homes south of Golf Links, but bring it round through Orange Grove, and punch through Snyder -- now I'll get more calls. And down Houghton maybe. I don't know."

Ronstadt is hopeful that a grade-separated intersection (GSI) planned for Campbell Avenue and Grant Road might help alleviate some of Tucson's traffic woes, but the project will have to get approval from voters.

"We're going to have to see how the grade-separated intersection at Grant and Campbell goes," Ronstadt says. "I think there are ways to maybe, using a series of GSIs down Grant, to achieve not a freeway but a faster-moving arterial and design it so it doesn't split neighborhoods, doesn't make life miserable."

Other council members remain skeptical of the value of a GSI at Campbell and Grant.

"Knock yourself out," Anderson says. "One GSI ain't going to do much for anybody. It'll allow engineers to have fun with their new toy, but if you're going to do GSIs, you've got to do a series of them to move traffic along, and if you're talking Grant Road, I think you're further dividing part of our community that's already split."

With a price tag of $22 million per intersection, Leal dismisses GSIs as a waste of money. "This whole GSI thing is a freeway in drag," he says. "I think they're a disaster. A four-lane street with GSIs handles the same traffic as a six-lane street without."

Leal argues the money would be better spent widening Grant to six lanes and beautifying the street at the same time. He points to the Speedway widening, which cost $54 million, with $32 million spent on real estate. "We widened the street and beautified and stabilized neighborhoods and small business."

Last year, the council explored the possibility of asking voters to approve a quarter- or half-cent sales tax for mass transit, but quickly abandoned the idea. Although Anderson thinks the transportation department could design an efficient public transit system, most of the council members agree with Ronstadt, who says the city lacks the density to do effective mass transit.

"The thing about sprawl, or the expanse of this community, is density -- we don't have the numbers of bodies in the core city or even the periphery to support mass transit. I think people understand that, but they still want mass transit."

YOU CAN'T HAVE growth without water -- and Tucson Water scored a big victory at the ballot box last November when voters, by a 61 percent margin, rejected Prop 200, an initiative that would have further restricted CAP water use. As a result, the water utility is continuing with its major Avra Valley recharge effort. Within a year, Walkup told the crowd, Tucson Water will begin delivering a blend of CAP and groundwater to customers.

Meanwhile, since the election, radon gas in our water has gone from being so dangerous the council was prepared to shut down half our wells to being a troublesome federal technicality. Last month, the council voted to petition the EPA to issue a standard high enough that the city wouldn't need to treat the radon gas at all. Before the election, Ronstadt said the city's history in ignoring TCE contamination meant the community had to take the strictest approach possible with radon; now he shrugs, "Radon's been here for billions and billions of years and we've lived with it."

Ronstadt has the most ambitious plan for water policy. He'd like to create a regional water authority which encompasses the entire Tucson Active Management Area, a geographic area that stretches from Pinal County to the Mexican border. The elected body would "oversee every drop of water, whether it be ground water, surface water, reclaimed, sewer effluent, that's all they do. If we can swing it, and I've been talking to some lawyers, have a board with minimum requirements -- post-graduate degree in hydrology, geology, engineering, a law degree specializing in water law. There may be some kind of issue as far as excluding people, which would, if it's true, would have to be overcome or not overcome."

West, who served as executive director of the Tucson Regional Water Council before she ran for office, says Ronstadt's vision is "a dream. The more you get into this stuff, the more you understand that. And I will tell you, a lot of these little companies do a pretty good job of delivering water."

West would consider turning over the control of Tucson Water to an elected board, but, she says, "We've got some things we have to do first. We've got a lot of resolution of issues of supply across the community that we need to work out. And if we move that out to an independent board, how will we interact with all these other water utilities? One idea that I had is that we'd be a wholesaler, to the region, and we'd have the board of directors."

At least one councilman is adamantly opposed to relinquishing control of the water utility.

"It's a disaster," Leal says. "It's wrong. Water is a huge public health issue. It should always be done by people who do their business on television. It demands the greatest scrutiny, not some backroom board that gets out of sight and out of mind."

Anderson is softening in his opposition. "If you were to put on the ballot a proposed water authority that would have an elected board of directors or whatever you want to call it, and you allow Tucson Water customers to be part of the democratic process, I think that would be a good idea. It's such a complicated issue -- water quality, water conservation, water rates -- that requires a lot of attention to make really good decisions and takes up a lot of our time. It's a very challenging issue and it's not that I want to sidestep it, because it's very interesting, but there are a lot of other things on our plates that we need to pay attention to."

ANOTHER POTENTIAL CHARTER change: ward-only elections. Under the current system, candidates run in primaries in their own ward, then campaign citywide in the general election. Since Democrats greatly outnumber Republicans, they've long dominated city politics. When he was elected in 1997, Ronstadt was the first Republican to be elected to a council seat since 1985.

In 1998, after the council balked at then-mayor George Miller's push for a charter change to ward-only elections, Miller teamed up with Walkup to lead a ballot initiative to put the question to the voters. That effort collapsed in a complex legal snafu.

Ronstadt, the only council member to back Miller two years ago, still supports ward-only elections, but he doesn't think any of the other council members would go along with it: "I don't think there are four votes. It'd just be me and Bob."

He might want to talk to West, who supports putting the question to the voters. "I will vote to put it on the ballot, even though it might mean that in the next election I wouldn't be elected," says West, who lost in her own ward to Republican Rick Grinnell last November.

Anderson is softening in his opposition to ward-only elections. "I was against ward-only elections about a year ago. I think I might be able to support ward-only elections," he says, if it came packaged with a number of charter changes.

Anderson would like to see voters consider a strong-mayor form of government. Under the current structure, the mayor and council set policy, but the city manager controls the bureaucracy implementing that policy. Anderson, who recently quit his teaching job to start a new career in residential home sales, thinks the time may have come to put the mayor in real control of the city's administration, make City Council positions full-time rather than part-time jobs, and increase the post's $24,000 salary.

A HOST OF other issues are lingering from last year. The council's big-box ordinance remains tied up in court as a judge decides whether a referendum petition sponsored by WalMart to overturn the law should be sent to voters.

Loosely connected to the big-box issue is the fate of El Con, the once-upscale mall where Home Depot still hopes to win approval for a big-box store. Walkup is trying to convince mall owners to agree to a mitigation accord reached last summer, which melted as neighborhood tempers flared. His consensus-building skills will be put to the test in those sessions.

The council needs to find a new city manager. The current top administrator, Luis Gutierrez, retired as of the new year, but he has agreed to serve as an interim manager, drawing his hefty pension and full salary until a replacement can be found. The city will soon hire a headhunting firm to recruit candidates for the post.

And voters have given the city a blank check with Rio Nuevo, the ambitious downtown development proposal which aims to transform Tucson's birthplace into a cultural park, museum campus and retail/restaurant complex. City troubleshooter John Jones, who has headed up various special projects for the city, has been assigned the task of developing a master plan.

"It's the chance of a lifetime for this community, to revitalize downtown and highlight our historic and cultural ties," Walkup told the crowd last week. "I'm very excited about the Convento, Mission Gardens, the museums and the business prospects for our city. But Rio Nuevo must be fiscally sound. It cannot become a burden to the taxpayers of Tucson."

Ronstadt, who argued the Rio Nuevo project was a corruption of the state law allowing tax-increment financing, echoes those concerns. "Now we're stuck, now we have to do this thing," he says. "We have to act as responsibly as we can on this whole project so we don't create things that then become a burden for the general fund when TIFF goes away."

This being downtown Tucson, Ronstadt sees plenty of hurdles in the development process. "I'm already hearing that PCIC (Pima County Interfaith Council) wants anything built in Rio Nuevo to be part of the livable wage ordinance," he sighs.

Low wages continue to plague Tucson. As Walkup warned in his speech, "We are becoming a community of 'haves' and 'have-nots.' There is a growing gap between the rich and poor."

Walkup called for increased funding for job-training and incentives for high-tech employers: "We must get serious about fostering high-tech opportunities in Tucson. This includes a combination of business retention, expansion, incubation and recruitment."

For the most part, council members agree with the Mayor. They say many potential employers gripe that Tucsonans lack the necessary skills for high-tech jobs.

"Our young people are not being trained adequately, nor in the right areas to be moving into some of the opportunities that could be here," Anderson says. "Employers are complaining they have to go to other communities to look for properly educated and trained employees. I'd be glad to see some improvements in that area. You can't do too much to bring in quality jobs and move away from the telecenter industry that we seem to have ended up focusing on."

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