Yesterday's Blues

Even as Mayor Bob Walkup looks to the future, he's haunted by problems from the past.

If you were to judge the state of the city purely from Mayor Bob Walkup's lengthy speech last week, you'd surely believe things are on an upswing in Tucson. The luncheon, co-sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, brought out more than 1,000 local businesspeople, artists, lobbyists and government employees for a buzzing municipal celebration.

The general babbittry in Bob's speech is entirely predictable. And to his credit, he acknowledged the problem of low wages and our deteriorating public transit system. But even while he talks about better planning in the future, problems from the past continue to haunt the city. As he tries to deal with them, he may find that his political honeymoon is over.

To be sure, Tucson's economic indicators look good. Walkup boasted in his speech that the Tucson metro area has led the nation in economic growth, growing at better than 6 percent. Unemployment even dipped below 3 percent.

But--as Walkup himself admitted in his speech--many of those jobs aren't so good. According to 1999 census estimates, in Tucson's roughly 185,000 households, half the workers earned less than $28,000, and nearly one-fourth earned less than $15,000. For families, the numbers weren't much better; half brought in less than $35,000.

Those same census figures show a depressing 15 percent of Tucsonans lived below the federal poverty line, including nearly one-third of the community's single moms. More than one in five households were eligible for some form of public welfare benefits. Last year, the Community Food Bank struggled to distribute an average of 28,000 meals a day.

Walkup acknowledged the struggle single moms have in finding both a job and decent daycare services for their children in his speech last week. Calling it a vital link in the effort to get low-income women back into the workforce, the mayor promised to find more funding for childcare programs. He also targeted the childcare industry, promising to step up inspection of the 40 percent of local facilities he called substandard. While he set an admirable goal, the specifics have yet to emerge. If Walkup's right in his estimation that a toddler's daycare can exceed the cost of a freshman's college tuition, it's safe to say solutions won't come cheap.

The childcare challenge is just one crack in Tucson's low-wage economy, which sends persistent tremors down more than one political fault line: high crime rates, slum housing and social services such as job-training programs.

"It's that whole nexus of crime, substandard housing, low-paying jobs, inadequate public transportation," says City Councilman Jerry Anderson, who has been working with the City Attorney's Office to bring slums in his north-central Ward 3 up to code. "Yes, unemployment is very low, but our wages can be pretty low, too. We still have a wide disparity among our citizens as far as opportunities for good jobs."

Last year, crime was particularly deadly, with 90 homicides in the Tucson area. Meanwhile, the police department remains understaffed, even though the council increased funding last year for more police officers and higher pay.

"We're still losing them faster than we can keep 'em," says Republican Fred Ronstadt, although he hopes the trend will soon reverse.

Councilwoman Carol West agrees that "they need more officers for sure." But she says the police department can't do everything; citizens must also form neighborhood watch groups and report suspicious activity.

Anderson agrees that more police officers are only part of the solution. "We're just moving the crime around," he says. "We haven't found a way to reduce it citywide so we are a safer community to live in, rather than just parts of our community. So existing neighborhoods in the central city, on the west side, on the south side, on the southeast side still have more than their share of crime, and I don't think we've figured out how to resolve that."

Anderson is pushing for a ban on private sales at gun shows at the Tucson Convention Center, where a teenaged Kajornsak "Tom" Prasertphong purchased a gun used in the brutal 1999 robbery of an eastside Pizza Hut that left three employees dead. The sale was illegal because Prasertphong was under 21 years old. Anderson says all sales should have to go through a background check, rather than "this shoddy process that exists now at gun shows where anybody can basically get a gun from somebody walking through the aisles."

Since federal law doesn't allow anyone other than a licensed federal firearms dealer to conduct a background check, the only way to ensure background checks is to ban private sales--and even that may be prohibited by newly passed state law designed to thwart such a ban.

Anderson's proposal met with weak support at a crowded meeting last week. The council voted 5-2 to examine how Colorado and Oregon have handled the background check loophole. The council is set to take the question up again at a meeting this month, but several council members remain outright opposed to the ban.

"Bad guys who want guns are going to get guns," says Ronstadt, arguing that there's already a thriving black market where criminals can get firearms. "If I thought in my heart that banning private sales at the TCC would be an effective way to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, I would support it."

WALKUP'S TOUGHEST POLITICAL test is transportation, which he's placed at the center of his agenda. He pointed to the results of a highly unscientific poll on the city's Web site that showed 80 percent of the respondents complained about Tucson's roadways. Walkup wants to plan and implement a number of transportation improvements, but all the plans in the world won't help move people across the valley if you don't have the money to build them.

In fact, there's already what Walkup called a "reasonably good" plan on the table. The Pima Association of Governments--a coalition of local jurisdictions, including the city, county, Marana, Oro Valley, Sahuarita and South Tucson--recently revised its long-range transportation plan through 2025. It's a complex blueprint that considers everything from roadways and public transit to train tracks and runways. But the bottom line is a bit staggering: The regional plan will cost $10.7 billion. The PAG staff estimates that with the existing revenue streams, there will be about $6.6 billion available, leaving a 38 percent shortfall. A three-point strategy--a sales tax, a gas tax and impact fees--could bring in another $1.8 billion, leaving the commuity shy just a mere $2.3 billion. (So much for a light-rail system.)

In the short term, the picture inside the city limits is bleak. Tony Paez, the city's transportation director, says that current funding will only cover 40 percent of his forecasted budget over the next five years. Funds from the state are declining because Maricopa County municipalities are growing faster than Tucson, so we take a hit because transportation dollars are doled out on the basis of population in incorporated municipalities. The local shortfall comes as many of Tucson's streets are in desperate need of repair.

"We don't have enough money to maintain our roads," says Paez. "Our local streets especially--they're 40 to 50 years old and all we can do is routine maintenance, fix potholes and chip-seal. But that doesn't do very well with older streets because the substructure isn't good enough to hold what we put on it."

The upcoming March incorporation election for the community of Casas Adobes exposes the dilemma the city faces. If Casas Adobes voters approve the incorporation, Paez estimates it could cost the transportation department roughly $2 million a year. If it fails, and Tucson were to annex the area, the additional citizens would mean Tucson would get additional transportation funding. "But I don't think it would cover all the capital needs up there," says Paez, "so which way do we go?"

In recently annexed areas on the city's eastern border, the needs are pressing as well. West complains that the rural roads in her ward need repair, as do inner-city streets. But she sidesteps a question about her priorities in a time of limited funding.

Funds are equally tight for public transit. Given Tucson's low-density development, creating an affordable and effective mass transit system remains a nearly insurmountable challenge. In recent years, Sun Tran has failed to hit even the low goal of covering 25 percent of its budget through the fare box; last year, it was a struggling 22 percent. The system ended the year with a deficit of more than $2 million. The council responded by trimming service and hiking fares, which is likely to further depress ridership.

"Other than increasing fares, we haven't done all that much," complains Anderson. "We're going backwards as far as public transportation goes, from what I've seen.

Last year, the council rejected a plan to ask voters to enact a half-cent or quarter-cent sales tax to boost public transit and fund more street maintenance. But there's still a push to increase the sales tax, which is made more urgent by the possibility that the Arizona Legislature may ask voters to impose a statewide sales tax dedicated to transportation. The state's Vision 21 transportation task force is expected to recommend the option of a statewide sales tax increase, perhaps as soon as the 2002 ballot. If a statewide tax passes, Pima County voters, who have already knocked down the proposal twice since 1986, aren't likely to pop for a second boost for local projects, especially with the upcoming six-tenths-of-a-cent hike for education. While a statewide tax would bring additional dollars to Tucson, Paez says it won't be enough; he'd like to see Tucson take a shot at enacting its own tax.

Walkup's chief of staff, Andrew Greenhill, said last week that a statewide boost might alleviate the need for an additional local tax, depending on how many dollars flow from the state. Council members, meanwhile, doubt voters would approve a sales tax unless there's a well-drawn plan.

"I'm not convinced a sales tax that would finance both public transit improvements and major roadway improvements is something this community is going to support, nor should support," Anderson says.

West wants to put the question to voters, but not before there's a solid plan. "I'm really concerned because I think people have to know what it would be for," West says. "At this point, we must have three different ideas on the council. We've got to get behind a plan of some kind and decide how we're going to fund it."

A gas tax remains impractical for a municipality, simply because drivers could easily fill up outside city limits. The state task force may recommend hiking the statewide gas tax, which has remained at 18 cents a gallon since it was enacted. (Just to adjust for inflation, the tax would have to rise 13 cents per gallon.) Such an increase might boost the state funds coming into Tucson, but it still won't cover the shortfall.

The final PAG transportation funding option is enacting impact fees, but only three council members--Anderson, West and Ward 1's José Ibarra--solidly support the proposal. Although some sort of impact fee is common in communities throughout the country--in some areas of Maricopa County, the fees top five figures--the concept hasn't been embraced by local political leaders. Pima County charges a mere $1,550-per-home fee, while Oro Valley charges a similar amount. But the Tucson City Council is a long way from establishing a fee. Walkup declared during his 1999 campaign that impact fees wouldn't be necessary because he could persuade the state legislature to release more transportation dollars to Tucson. Although state transportation funding is instead dwindling, Walkup remains opposed to the fees.

Ronstadt remains cool to impact fees as well, although he muses that they could be used as a way of directing growth. "Should we be targeting specific areas where there are no impact fees and then making the impact fees so egregious where we don't want growth until the infill is done?" he asks. "But we can't do that if we're not coordinating efforts with the county."

Leal argues that impact fees drive up housing costs. "When this area has impact fees and the rest of the city doesn't, the land next to it becomes worth more," says Leal. "Then the mortgages and the rent go up. Three years later, the crappiest trailer somewhere in town has gone up 20 bucks a month. Impact fees ripple through the entire housing economy because they go on the mortgage."

Until the city finds more money, big-ticket items like grade-separated intersections (GSIs) remain beyond reach. A proposed GSI that would allow Grant Road to travel underneath Campbell Avenue has been in the planning stages for a decade, with the price climbing as high as $35 million. Paez says there's no money for the project in his underfunded five-year budget.

"A GSI would be very viable with a new revenue source," say Paez, who's eager to build a demonstration project, although it may no longer happen at Campbell and Grant. Other likely corners include Stone Avenue and Speedway Boulevard, as part of Anderson's ongoing push to reinvest in the Stone Avenue corridor, or even at Kolb and Tanque Verde roads, if West can lift the project from Ward 3.

In the meantime, traffic promises to get worse before it gets better: Next month, east-west rush hour traffic will likely worsen with the removal of the suicide lane on Broadway. North-south traffic promises to be nightmarish as the city begins widening Campbell Avenue between Elm Street and Grant.

THE TRANSPORTATION DEPARTMENT isn't the only city department with deferred maintenance bills. Over in the sanitation department, long-neglected dumps are in urgent need of attention.

Eliseo Garza, the city's Solid Waste Department director, estimates that the city has a $60 million job ahead in cleaning up old landfills and expanding the current one. At least two landfills have contaminated groundwater wells, with plumes on the move. Four others are hooked into systems to control the release of methane gas.

On the west side, another cleanup awaits near Tumamoc Hill, where the city and the UA dumped waste in the 1960s. The dispute between the city and the university over the cleanup liability has thwarted the county's attempt to acquire the land under the Growing Smarter program. Other than the 25-acre dump, it's 320 acres of mostly natural desert between A Mountain and Tucson Mountain Park that includes the UA's Desert Laboratory, which has been monitoring Sonoran Desert conditions for nearly a century. Garza says the city urgently needs to spend $3 million there to cap the landfill and make sure rainwater isn't seeping through the garbage and contaminating the acquifer.

Older dumps, says Garza, "weren't managed the way we manage them now, and so they have environmental concerns associated with them--either groundwater pollution or gas migration or subsidence. So now we need to go back and do the proper thing. For all those years that those landfills were being filled, there was no investment being made."

Where's the $60 million going to come from? Last year, Garza proposed a throw-as-you-go garbage fee, with households paying $6 per month for a 30-gallon container. Households that needed larger containers--60 to 90 gallons--would pay either $13.50 or $17. The council rejected the plan, but a fee may be coming.

Ronstadt splits the semantic hairs very closely.

"If it's a garbage collection fee, no," Ronstadt says. "If it's an environmental fee to address the landfill remediation, and future acquisitions and all that, then we have to take a real close look at

it ... . The costs for landfill remediation are so astronomical that at some point we're going to have to go to an environmental fee."

While the council delayed a decision on a fee, it did make a change in sanitation policy: Beginning this fall, the department will pick up garbage and recycling once a week, rather than on the current schedule of twice-a-week garbage service and every-other-week recycling collection.

The city curbside recycling program, launched in the early 1990s, had the optimistic goal of having 50 percent of the city's waste diverted from landfills by the year 2000. But by last year, the actual percentage ran an anemic 6 percent--about 9 percent from households and only 3 percent from commercial disposal.

Garza hopes the new schedule will increase the recycling rate to 27 percent, with much of the increase coming from commercial trash.

Recycling isn't just about saving resources. It's also about saving space in the landfill. Currently, Tucson dumps about 550,000 tons of its annual 850,000 tons of garbage at the Los Reales landfill. The remaining garbage gets hauled away to private dumps.

Garza estimates he has enough space to last through at least 2016 and possibly longer, provided that new homes don't encroach on the dump and Tucson International Airport doesn't build a new runway in the dump's direction. A successful recycling program might prolong that a little longer, but eventually the city will have to find a new landfill site. "It's going to be hard to site a new landfill," says Garza, "and it's going to be a very expensive process."

THERE ARE PLENTY of other issues on the horizon, including the continuing efforts to revitalize downtown. City officials hope they've finally found the key to overcoming downtown's doldrums with the Rio Nuevo project, but few private dollars are committed to the project.

"I still don't see anyone from the private sector jumping up and down to come in and help us out," says Ronstadt. "It's not going to be successful unless you get several members of the private sector involved with this project."

Our crumbling city core has not stopped our civic leaders from looking for more raw land. Walkup counts among his first-year triumphs the annexation of 26 square miles of state trust land on the city's southeast side.

Walkup's argument: Well-planned development can pay for itself, without the burden of impact fees and similar financing mechanisms. If everything is properly balanced, he says, the increased tax revenues from commercial development and economic growth will cover the costs of additional roads, additional police and fire service, additional parks and the rest of the cost of delivering municipal services.

That's a balancing act that few southwestern cities have managed--as Tucson's crumbling streets and contaminated wells attest. Even the best transportation plan ever drawn will divert dollars away from the already neglected inner city.

Still, most council members support the annexation.

"Because I'm kind of a control freak, I'd like to see us take that land before it becomes part of some other city," says West, although she concedes that she's "concerned about delivering services." She also doesn't hold much stock in the "doggone loose" Growing Smarter process. "I think we have to provide much more leadership than we have in the past" in the planning process.

Anderson is also skeptical of Growing Smarter. "It seems to me that this Growing Smarter is a lot of oughtas--you oughta do this, you oughta do that," he says. "I have not seen specifics about how that new area is going to be developed."

Whatever planning the city has done hasn't included the transportation department. Paez says the area is mostly undeveloped, so the department wouldn't see much increase in state dollars. But as it develops, the city will be obligated to provide roads. "There's going to be some roadways that people travel down there," says Paez. "Development may pay for the local area that they're improving, but they're going to need roadways to get to that district."

Anderson, who once worked on the city's annexation team, says the city's track record is not encouraging.

"It's going to be developed," says Anderson. "Should the city do it or should the county or some other entity? I can see the pluses of giving us the opportunity to allow it to develop in a good way. Then we have to look back and see what we've got going. And I'm not convinced by anything we've done over the last 40 years that we know what we're doing as far land-use management goes."