WILL ANYONE SHOW up to vote in Tucson's bond election this Tuesday, May 16? Given the seemingly non-controversial nature of the seven ballot questions, the lack of any significant organized opposition, and the general lack of interest in politics in these booming economic times, chances are good that very few citizens will bother to go to the polls to decide how $278 million in public dollars should be spent.
The bond questions, which contain everything from apple-pie programs like sidewalks and street lighting to funding for the highly controversial Avra Valley CAP recharge project, hasn't raised the public ire the way the city's 1994 bond election did. That year, in the wake of the CAP fiasco the previous summer, opponents conducted a vigorous campaign to defeat the proposed $114 million water bond question. But voters still approved that measure, along with all but two of the other eight ballot issues.
Despite voter apathy, this year's bond election has at least one feisty critic: Ed Kahn. Kahn, who has twice run unsuccessfully for mayor on the Libertarian ticket, gripes that the city's budget is so wasteful that the City Council is forced to ask voters to let government go into debt to pay for necessary improvements like sidewalks and streetlights. Kahn dismisses local government debt as "foolish" and "stupid" and thinks City Hall should operate on a "pay-as-you-go" basis.
Kahn expresses special animosity for ballot question No. 5, which would provide $39.5 million for parks and libraries. With typical Libertarian zeal, he argues that it's not the city's job to build a new recreation center for people with disabilities; instead, a charitable organization ought to do the job. "The Parks and Recreation Department can't run golf courses," Kahn says, "so why should we go into more debt when many of our current recreational facilities are sitting vacant?"
Kahn also blasts the timing of the vote, calling it a scam that costs hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars. Instead of holding a special election in May, Kahn says, the bond questions could just as easily have been included, for next to nothing, on the November ballot. But, Kahn claims, this bond election isn't about saving taxpayer money. "Its about big bucks for the big construction companies in town," he insists.
While Kahn and some of his Libertarian friends have spent about $500 placing small signs around Tucson which call the bonds "boneheaded," the Bonds for Tucson's Future committee has raised and spent more than $56,000 to promote the entire package. Committee chair Bob Suarez, head of the consulting firm RS Engineering, believes the bonds address required infrastructure needs like repairing existing physical facilities. He also praises the planned changes for a few major street intersections.
Suarez says he isn't too concerned about the Libertarian opposition to the ballot questions -- and he's probably got little to worry about. Tucson voters, at least those few that bother to turn out for bond elections, have traditionally supported the requests, except for ill-conceived projects like expansion of the Tucson Convention Center, which voters have consistently opposed. (Local officials and their big money pals have managed to find a way around those rejections sooner or later.)
While all of this year's bond measures will probably pass easily, there are some important points to consider when you go to the polls.
· Totaling $130 million, the five general obligation bond issues will raise property taxes on a home assessed at $100,000 an average of $34 annually over the next decade. Are these projects for drainage, street lighting, sidewalks, parks, libraries, public safety, and landfill expansion worth the price tag?
· The $25 million in street bonds, which will be repaid through existing gas taxes, doesn't begin to cover the community's need for transportation improvements. But instead of making new growth pay its own way though impact fees to address this crisis, our local politicians constantly complain about a lack of funds for transportation. Meanwhile, they are laying the groundwork to, once again, ask the voters to raise the sales tax to build projects like the already rejected Rillito-Pantano Parkway. Instead of whining about a lack of money, why doesn't the city just impose a transportation impact fee on new homes?
· The $123.6 million in water bonds, which would raise bills an average of 1.6 percent annually over the next five years, will help Tucson Water get closer to accomplishing two of its long cherished goals. The first is to fully fund the $75-million CAP recharge project in Avra Valley. The second is the long-term dream of being able to serve processed toilet water on Tucson tables in the future. After all, when there are two million bodies sweating away in the summer sun around here, where else do you think the water is going to come from?
While there are seven issues to be voted on Tuesday, the question of who will foot the bill for our unrestrained growth is not on the ballot. While this year we are asked to foot the bill for a new fire station required because the city limits continue to expand, and increasing landfill space because more people create more trash, the issue of growth paying its own way remains unchanged. And we'll continue to ignore it, as long as the suckers who live in Tucson buy the line that growth can't pay its own way because that somehow wouldn't be fair, and besides, it would make expensive new housing "unaffordable."
So if you bother to vote next week, remember that you're helping subsidize growth by approving the ballot questions. Supporting the bonds is just your little way of continuing a Tucson tradition: the myth that as we get bigger, we get better, and that current residents should pay for the privilege.