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The Skinny

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EXPLODING ON IMPACT

You gotta appreciate City Councilman Rodney Glassman's sense of showmanship. With the help of some friends in the construction biz, Glassman on Feb. 10 turned a normally sleepy City Council study session into a contentious brawl over whether the city should stop collecting some impact fees for the next year.

Even Ward 6 Councilwoman Nina Trasoff congratulated Rodney, although the contempt that dripped from her voice as she complimented him for having "played the lawyer" left us thinking she wasn't all that happy with him.

The idea of suspending the impact fees for a year was first floated by the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association. Glassman picked up the ball and ran with it, much to dismay of his colleagues.

When he began his presentation last week, Glassman made a point of saying he supports impact fees in general and stressed that he didn't want to exempt the fees that pay for fire and police stations; he only wanted to suspend the fees that pay for roads and parks.

His reasoning: Nobody is building much of anything these days, so the city isn't collecting much in the way of impact fees. If developers realize that they have a chance to save some money by getting projects underway within the next 12 months, maybe they'd break ground and put a few more people to work.

Glassman assembled a diverse team to support the idea in a rally before the meeting. The SAHBA folks were joined by Jay Tripp, the head of local plumbers union; Bob Cook, a longtime activist on the sustainability beat; and former Mayor George Miller. (But then again, Miller was never much of a fan of impact fees.)

Given the reaction of his fellow Democrats, however, you'd have thought that Rodney had ripped a fart in church. Ward 4 Councilwoman Shirley Scott, who normally runs close to the builders, complained that Glassman was trying to "govern through the media," because the plan had made front-page headlines, while Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero argued that the plan was not a "win-win" for the community and wanted to block any consideration of the idea, which she dismissed as a "political gimmick." Ward 3 Councilwoman Karin Uhlich wasn't too keen on the idea, either.

It may indeed be a gimmick; we're not convinced that suspending impact fees would really make that much of a difference in convincing developers to build homes, especially considering there are plenty of houses already on the market. But we tend to lean in Glassman's direction when he argues that there's not much of a downside. If we don't see the construction industry rebound soon, then there won't be any impact fees to collect. Even if the proposal gets a few more houses into the pipeline and gets a few people back to work, it would have a positive impact.

The proposal might do more to spur some commercial development; those fees are considerably higher than the residential ones, so developers stand to save more by getting those projects underway. And if that's the case, then you may have a resulting new restaurant or store producing tax revenues.

But the other council members didn't see it that way. One reason: Scott, Romero and Uhlich have spent the last few months coming up with a convoluted plan to let developers delay the payment of impact fees. They reckon that a delay would save the builders some interest payments on the financing of their developments; in exchange, builders would pay a new fee to the city's struggling trust fund for affordable housing.

That scheme has some legal hurdles to pass, because it would require every development to have an agreement that's approved by the council, since state law otherwise spells out when impact fees are to be collected. And the homebuilders aren't interested in seeing a new fee on homes, even if they are saving somewhere else in the process.

Nonetheless, Glassman's proposal would obviously screw up the Scott/Romero/Uhlich plan, so they were none too happy with it. But simply saying no in front of a packed council chamber wasn't a good route to go, especially since half of them are trying to figure out how to win a Democratic mayoral primary in two years. So instead, they shuffled the idea off to a citizens' committee that is supposed to review a range of stimulus ideas and report back to the council in 30 days. We can't wait to see what kind of creative thinking goes on with that bunch.

Meanwhile, the decision might be taken out of the council's hands. State lawmakers are now quietly talking about the possibility of a statewide suspension of impact fees for the next year, along with the possibility of rolling back the fees to a lower level for the next few years.


LET THE GAMES BEGIN

Standing on the patio of Hotel Congress, Ward 6 Councilwoman Nina Trasoff officially kicked off her 2009 re-election campaign by citing all the progress that's being made downtown. So far, we haven't seen anyone organizing a campaign against her, although some members of the business community are beating the bushes to find an opponent.

Nina has toned down her rhetoric a bit since her run four years ago, when her campaign launch included a promise to repeal the city's trash fee if elected. These days, she has adopted the softer tone pioneered by Karin Uhlich in 2005, saying that she really objects to the way that her Republican predecessors created the city's $14-a-month garbage fee, and not necessarily the fee itself.

It's a good thing that she's come to love the trash fee, because in these recessionary times, city staffers may soon be asking her to hike it. If they do, Trasoff says, "We need to look realistically at that."

In her 2005 campaign, Trasoff was also critical of Republican Fred Ronstadt for increasing fees for Parks and Rec classes. She voted to roll back those fees in her first meeting as a council member, but now says they may have to be increased.

"I think we're in very different times now," Trasoff says. "Philosophically, I would love it if we didn't have to do that, but if it's a choice between having higher fees and being able to continue some classes versus cutting classes ... I'd rather do that and find a way so that those who are financially challenged can still have access."


GOODBYE, STEVE EMERINE

Steve Emerine--newspaper man, teacher, politician, gun-for-hire and friend to many during the almost 50 years he spent here in Tucson--skipped off this mortal coil last Friday, Feb. 13.

We didn't always agree with Emerine, but we always enjoyed our election-night banter with him on John C. Scott's radio fiesta.

Emerine knew plenty about the local scene, going back to his early days of working at the Tucson Citizen in the 1960s. He'd go on to teach at the University of Arizona journalism department, own the Green Valley News, serve as Pima County assessor, do PR work for the UA and, finally, launch his own consulting firm.

Emerine wrapped up his career as a columnist for Inside Tucson Business, our sister newspaper, where he regularly hammered Pima County and the Tucson City Council. For a Democrat, he sure didn't like too many local Democrats. But he loved local politics, and he loved this town.

Godspeed, Mr. Emerine. Your voice will be missed.

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