On this week's episode of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel: The Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media and KXCI team up to present the first in a series of televised debates between the candidates for Tucson City Council. This week, Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero (D) faces off against her GOP opponent, Bill Hunt. Among the topics: The bus strike, Tucson's pothole problems, the controversy over Grand Canyon University and El Rio golf course and budget priorities. Tune in online here or watch at 8 a.m. Sunday morning on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on broadcast, DirecTV and Dish. Catch our new radio broadcast at 5 p.m. Sunday on KXCI, 91.3 FM.
Here's a transcript of the debate:
Hello. I'm Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel, and we're here to talk Zona Politics. We're partnering with the Tucson Weekly Tucson Local Media, and KXCI FM to bring you the first of three debates with this year's candidates for the Tucson City Council. Today we have the candidates for the Ward 1 council seat, incumbent Democrat Regina Romero who is seeking her third term representing the West Side Ward 1 and Republican challenger Bill Hunt, an Air Force veteran who now works for Raytheon, and volunteers for the Flying Samaritans. Thank you both for being here on Zona Politics. Let's start by just giving you each one minute to introduce yourselves to voters and explain why you think you're the best person for the seat. We'll start with you, Councilwoman.
(Romero) Thank you so much, I really appreciate it. I have more than 20 years of being involved in the political process in Tucson I worked tremendously along with my colleagues on the council to create incentive programs to create high-wage, long-term jobs in the City of Tucson. Worked tremendously to create infrastructure investments in the City of Tucson that have leveraged more than a billion dollars in public and private investment in downtown and see it thriving. We have worked to make sure that we repair our roads we have a hundred million dollars road-bond project that is under budget, $140 million dollars, and on time. And so, we've gone through the worst economic recession since the Great Depression and, while we were going through that as a mayor and council, we were able to not close any fire stations, as a matter of fact, or lay off any police officer or firefighter as a matter of fact we received millions of dollars from the federal government to hire more We just received a ? grant to hire an additional, I believe it's about 16 to 18 firefighters on top of 43 more that are retiring, so, we are thriving, and I want to continue doing public service for my community I have an experience of seven years under my belt and energy to continue.
(Nintzel) Alright and Mr. Hunt tell us a little about yourself and why you got into this race.
(Hunt) Well I got into it because I'm not a politician. I haven't had that experience, but I do have experience in industry and government. I was in the military, and I’m a problem solver, so I look at problems and say, "Okay. How do I get this solved? How do I get it solved within the constraints that we have of budget and time. And so I started to take a look at running I drove through the city and I see empty storefronts and roads that clearly need repair so I look at that and say "Can I help with that? Can I look at the problem, and as I got into it, I see, well there are other problems, the budget and things. These are problems that we need to look at and make and they are hard decisions, but we need to make them to see if we can't make the city better. We need to bring businesses to the city. We need to increase the tax base, not the tax rate, to fund the city, fund what it needs and get it on a fiscal plane that is good for the city.
(Nintzel) Alright, let's start by talking about the bus strike. I'll start with you, councilwoman. This has been going on for about five weeks, now, as the bus drivers seek a pay raise and better working conditions. They city contracted a private company to manage the drivers, so the city council is not directly involved with negotiating negotiations, here, but the city also pays the bills, and you have increased the funding in the city's general fund, from about $18 million to $30 million over the last six years, so that's a growing portion of the city's budget. Is the city's general fund contribution too much, too little just about right, and should the council raise bus fares to cover more of the costs?
(Romero) Well, first and foremost, I think that the strike needs to be stopped. And Mayor and Council have been very explicit about giving direction to our city manager, how to get to ending the strike, so that's priority number one. Two, we need to make sure that we are as a city that contracts to PTM Transit to manage the system, we need to make sure that we audit that we clean it up, and that once that we feel that management is running squeaky clean and that the residents of Tucson feel comfortable with the work we're doing We need to talk with Pima Association of Governments, with riders, with our transit task force, and with the Teamsters to come up with a long-term solution for transit. Now two of the departments that are costing are rising in costs are public safety and transit and transportation. Now we need to look at as a community is making sure that we look at other models that other cities are doing. The City of Phoenix just passed a funding source tied to transit, but it also has a funding source for public safety. So we need to look at what other cities in the valley are doing, as a model, and do it here in Tucson, but we need to have a transit system that is run efficiently and effectively, and we need to have a conversation with our community as to how we move forward with these two very important departments
(Nintzel) Mr. Hunt, what do you think? Does the city's contribution to SunTran, the subsidy coming from the general fund, is that too much, too little just about right, and should the council move forward with raising fares to help cover some of the costs.
(Hunt) Alright, to answer your question directly, I think it is too much and I think we do need to raise fares to some extent, or take a look at the efficiency of the system. I will agree with the congresswoman (corrects himself) the councilwoman that the strike needs to end. But I think it's real important for people to understand that the budget for the city for this year is set. I mean that's already set. And the way as I understand it that the bus is funded is they send an invoice to the city each month and the city pays the bill within the budget. So the city needs to encourage the end of the strike, but I'm not sure that they can actually mandate it, so, they're in a problem there, so, I also agree that we need to audit. The question would be how come the audits haven't already occurred. And so we need to look at that. We should look at the audits of not only this, but other departments as well, to make them as efficient as possible. As far as a single funding source, and she mentioned police, fire and she mentioned police, fire ... what she's really talking about there is a tax, so I believe that we have enough money through our current tax base to fund these departments adequately and make it work, without an additional sales tax to help.
(Nintzel) Alright. Let's talk about the roads. I hear a lot of complaints, I'm sure you hear a lot of complaints about potholes I'm wondering, Bill, what do you think the city should do in terms of finding more money for road repair and maintenance to get the roads in better shape.
(Hunt) Well, everybody doesn't, everybody hates the potholes, right? And that's what people see and I'll answer your question in just a second, directly, but I want to point out that it's very important that these roads be repaired. I believe that we need to reallocate money from the general fund we need to, this goes back to the previous question where making departments efficient we would have sufficient money to do the road repairs, to make it so the city has good roads. This is very, very important to bring in new businesses, to have people come here. You don't want to come here and drive on crappy roads I think everybody will agree with that, and we need to put the resources out there to make this happen. And I think a look at how we use the money we currently have would solve that problem.
(Nintzel) Regina, your thoughts on road repair and ongoing maintenance so that they don't fall into disrepair.
(Romero) Well, first and foremost, I think that people tend to forget the economic crises that every city in America had to go through in the past six years We're still not there yet, and what the mayor and council had to do, and I had to do in the council was to prioritize as much as we possibly could, and not lay people off, because laying people off only worsens the economic situation So mayor and council and I presented back in November of 2009 an economic development whitepaper and an action plan to make sure that we were creating the high wage, long-term jobs. That created an incentive like the primary jobs incentive programs which by the way have created more than 3,000 jobs, high-wage long-term jobs in the city of Tucson, that we created, and an economic initiatives office to make sure that we were looking at at our position geographically with Mexico, we hired a person that's specifically dedicated dedicates their time in trying to attract investment from Mexico and internationally, so, but in terms of the roads, the reason I’m saying that is because the roads had to be maintained, and we had to focus on saving our budget, not laying people off, and job creation. We succeeded at creating many different incentives, to see the downtown flourish to see the jobs in Home Goods and other companies being created and what we had to do was to go out, because you have to remember, the federal government how we use the revenue funds, and we lost the lottery fund that the State of Arizona used to send us for transit That in itself was at least $15 million. What we had to do as a mayor and council is look at a solution. That in itself was at least $15 million. What we had to do as mayor and council is look at a solution for our roads. We went out to the community. We said "Would you like to invest in your roads?" yourself?" And the people of Tucson said "Yes." A hundred million dollars more than 300 miles are being fixed, and people like right now are enjoying the brand new roads that are being constructed in the City of Tucson, and so, what we have to do now is make sure that we're retiring the debt that we have in highway user revenue fund in the department of transportation, and from that retirement of the debt, you have continuous funds to be able to fix, not only potholes, but fix roads for the continuation of private investment in our city.
(Nintzel) What did you think of the decision to use bonds to repair roads?
(Hunt) I don't like it. Not that the roads don't need to be repaired. That's not the issue. I am a believer that we need to live within our means. Alright, so bonding, of course, is nothing but borrowing money, so I asked whatever governmental agency is bonding, then you're bonding out how many years, ten, fifteen, twenty years, I said my question is, "What makes you think that you'll be able to repay this bond in that length of time when you can't pay for it now?"
(Romero) Well if I may answer that question, the way that you pay bonds is by retiring debt making sure that you have the additional funds to continue paying and continue investing in roads and by creating jobs, and that's exactly what we have been doing, and making sure that we're creating infill in our city, making sure that people want to live, work and play in the city of Tucson. When the City of Tucson uses bonds, and by the way, I support the Pima County bonds that are in front of the voters, when we use bonds, we create the leverage for private development and investment, so public investment leverages private investment, and that has, it doesn't take the click of the finger, to resolve such a big budget issue as we had And every city in American had it. So what we have to do is make sure that we use bonding carefully, but that we use it immediately, so that we can turn around economic situation of the city and the county.
(Nintzel) Is there a long-term strategy rather than continuing with bonding to repair the streets?
(Romero) Every city in America has used Highway User Revenue Funds from the state, and Highway User Revenue Funds that come back from the federal government. Both the federal government and the state have cut off and dramatically decreased the funding that has been coming back to the city of Tucson. And what we have to do is, really, nationally and statewide find a solution to continue producing available fund from the taxpayer pocket that came from Tucson residents into the state. They need to come back so it is not only a City of Tucson question mark, but it is a State of Arizona and a national question. I know that Chuck Huckleberry has suggested using and bringing up gas taxes that we use, but we have to make sure that we're looking at this not only the City of Tucson but every city and town in Arizona and the state.
(Nintzel) Does this the state and the federal government bear some of the responsibility for the…
(Hunt) Clearly the councilwoman is correct in that the state level that the legislature cut the HURF funds to the cities. I mean that's a matter of record. That's not a problem, a debate, but the cut was about 7%, and so a lot of people, what happens, so you know, we give these gas taxes they basically go to Phoenix, they take their share and they send back … there's a formula for all this, for different size cities and so forth, and that was cut about 7%, so we're talking about a 7% cut there. So that was the HURF funding that happened. We still have it, it's just less. And, again, I agree that we need to fix the roads. Now whether bonding is the answer Retirement of debt, clearly is what I want to retire all the debt, but I need to see a plan to do so I need to see how our revenues are going to exceed our outgoes so we have money to retire that debt I would like to retire all of the debt, all that we ... if I could but I can't, so we need to go on a road to retire the debt that we have. I don't see how borrowing more money helps that. If I am in trouble financially personally, going out and borrowing money doesn't really help me.
(Nintzel) Alright. We're going to have to leave it there as we take a break to thank our underwriters. We'll be right back with more questions for the Ward 1 candidates for the Tucson City Council Regina Romero and Bill Hunt. Stay tuned.
(Nintzel) And we're back with our Tucson City Council debate with Councilwoman Regina Romero and her Republican challenger Bill Hunt. Let's talk about a local issue that was in the ward a few years ago. The city had some preliminary talks with Grand Canyon University to possibly sell or lease the El Rio Golf Course. But in face of neighborhood opposition the plan was abandoned. Bill, do you think that was a missed opportunity?
(Hunt) I do. I think that the university would have been a good asset to the City of Tucson and would have also taken that real estate area which would have developed it into a school. There's water issues involved and the whole thing. I do want to make it perfectly clear, though, and I think it's important to realize that Grand Canyon University was not a done deal. They had not decided for sure. They were discouraged at the end, to not come here, and so I think that hurt, but I also think it hurts because other businesses, other corporations that are looking to move to Tucson see that, and they go, "Oh, well Tucson doesn't really want businesses," or that may be the perception, and I think that needs to change. We need to indicate to businesses, to Grand Canyon University to other corporations and small businesses alike, that we are interested in their business. We want them to come here. We want to build the tax base.
(Nintzel) Alright and councilwoman?
(Romero) Well first and foremost, I think if Bill would have been elected at the time I think it would've been necessary for him to listen to their constituents, not only West Side neighbors, but many different constituencies, the LGBT communities, many different constituency, even open space community — golfers, the Conquistadores the First Tee program. There were many, many different people that were not really interested in going in that direction with that piece of property. Now, I have been working very, very hard to make sure that golf pays for itself. It's an enterprise department, it has been losing more than 1.5 million dollars a year, more than $8 million to date that golf has been losing, so in terms of trying to find a solution I considered the possibility of opening that particular piece of property to a private university. I considered it. I was open to it, but it was at the wrong time at the wrong place. First and foremost, Grand Canyon were looking at other cities throughout Arizona. They were very seriously considering Mesa, and just for your information, Grand Canyon has not even started developing the Mesa campus. So I think that we need to continue talking about golf and the losses that golf has been causing, for our budget. Two, we need to make sure that we plan as a community, we have Tucson mayor and council approved city-wide Parks and Recreation master planning effort that's ongoing right now, and as an elected official you need to listen to the constituencies that are trying to tell you, Maybe this is not the right place, and maybe this is not the right time. So I believe any elected official would have made the decision to say, "Hey, let's take a step back, and let's research what are other types of solutions for the losses that are happening at El Rio and other golf courses.
(Nintzel) Let's talk about the city budget. There've been a lot of challenges, but what are some areas where you believe the city is spending too much and where do you think it needs to spend more.
(Regina) Well throughout the past seven budgeting cycles we've had a tremendous, tremendous difficulty in terms of the revenues that are coming into the City of Tucson. The City of Tucson is not alone, like I said before. Every city and town in American was having that problem. Revenues that are coming in are not according to expenditures. I think we've done an amazing job on the council level to make sure that we did not do any mass layoffs I think that departments are running very, very thin. Most of the departments have received more than 30% reduction. We've laid off, I mean not laid off, we've left more than 1,000 position open in the City of Tucson. So our workforce is a thousand people less than it was back in 2006. With more people in the city. So I believe that we have to do much more in terms of our general services department. We have to look at departments creatively, but we've done it, and I'm telling you, departments are running very, very thin We've looked at the TCC, the Tucson Convention Center We saw problems happening there, and actually it was my office that brought to the attention of the city manager that we should clean that department so we have, and privatized the management and operations of the TCC where we partner with Rio Nuevo to make sure that we're investing in it. We're seeing some profit come in, a decrease in the general fund. The same thing with golf. My office brought this to the attention, trying to be fiscally sound and looking at a department that was losing $1.5 million per year, getting us deeper in the hole. We've privatized golf. The management operation of our five golf courses. We still need to give it more time. It's not paying for itself still, so I think that we need to look at golf again and make the decisions as a community as to what's going to happen. So general services, TCC and that operation, golf and that operation, and continue to looking and auditing at the different departments that we need to do. But they're running very slim and, what we have in the City of Tucson budget is a structural deficit. Like I said before, Public Safety and transportation and transit are departments that are just going up pensions are going up with PSPRS that are run by the state of Arizona and so we need to look at how are we going to continue funding the city with the revenues that we have, so I feel we've been fiscally sound. We've been looking at every single department, being as creative as we possibly can, and we just need to continue looking toward the future as to how we're going to take care of those structural deficits.
(Nintzel) Let me get Bill in here. Are there specific areas where you think the solution to spending more ....
(Hunt) Very succinctly I look at that, and she's mentioned a lot of departments, efficiencies we need to look at. We look at the budget, which by law has to balance right, and we have to take a look at how they balanced it last time by borrowing from contingency funds, by selling properties and so forth how much of that do you have left to go forward in future years to balance future budgets. We need to take a look at the city charter which says fire and police, infrastructure, and we need to fund those areas. But one of the biggest problems we have for the budget is of course, the pension. It is run by the state, but we have a tremendous amount of money that we give that service out of the general fund. If we need to get that ... we need to get the pension plan for the fire and police, we need to get that under control so the amount of money from the general fund going to that is much less. So if we ... a forty to fifty million dollar we would have a lot of money if we didn't have to fund those payments the way we're doing right now. So we need to take a look at fixing that. It's not an instant fix, but we need to fix it. That will start bringing, and I agree, we need to be fiscally conservative there, whatever the word is. We need to have that plan to get the city on a good plane when it comes to finance.
(Nintzel) Right. I want to give you each 30 seconds to give a closing statement, and we'll start with you, Regina.
(Romero) Thank you so much. I feel that I deserve to be re-elected to the Ward 1 council seat All of the work that we've been able to do — economic development job creation, more than 3,000 high-wage, long-term jobs created in the City of Tucson, one of the worst economic recessions since the Great Depression. Downtown is thriving. One billion dollars in public and private investment. We're working hard and furiously to make sure that we bring infrastructure investment better parks, better streets. Innovation, prosperity and progress, that's what we need to inject and continue working on within the city council and I think I have a good track record in terms of balancing the budget creating jobs in the City of Tucson, and investing in infrastructure.
(Nintzel) Bill, thirty seconds here.
(Hunt) Okay, um I ran for the council because I want to see if I can improve the city. I want to do it by getting the budget in control. All I ask the people as you go out, "Are you happy Are you happy with the roads? Are you happy with seeing offices built that are empty? The parks that are in the shape that they are? If that's what you're happy with, that's what the status quo is right now. So, I want to change that. I want to move the city forward. I want to increase the tax base. I want to bring revenues in. I want to bring the businesses in. That's what I want to do to bring Tucson into the 21st Century.
(Nintzel) We're going to have to leave it there. I'd like to thank our guests, city councilwoman Regina Romero and Republican challenger Bill Hunt, and I'd also like to thank our supporters at the Arizona Inn and Hotel Congress, as well as our media partners at the Tucson Weekly, Tucson Local Media, KXCI and the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. If you missed any part of today's episode, you can check us out at zonapolitics.com, where you'll also find transcripts of this and our past episodes. Be sure to look us up on Facebook. Thanks for watching, and we'll see you next time.