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Moving Forward

Rejection of Pima County bonds means county needs to come up with new plan to fix roads and improve region

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Last week's election was a good week for the incumbents in both the City of Tucson (where Republicans with few campaign resources were unable to dislodge any of the Democrats on the Tucson City Council) and Oro Valley, where Mayor Satish Hiremath and his fellow town council members held off a recall.

But the big stunner of the night had to be the lopsided defeat of the $815 million county bond package.

On paper, the bonds seemed a reasonable gamble. Pima County voters have almost always supported a wide variety of bond packages; just last year, they overwhelmingly agreed to borrow $21 million for a new animal-care center. Supporters included Democrats and Republicans, business leaders and environmentalists. They had far more money than the ragtag band of opponents.

But voters said no—and in many cases, it wasn't even close. Two out of three voters rejected the idea of borrowing $99 million for tourism improvements like big improvements at places like the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Reid Park Zoo and the Tucson Children's Museum. The proposition that came closest to a win, $200 million for road repair, still lost by 8 percentage points.

There are plenty of theories about why the bond went down—and a combination of them probably explains why different people voted against them. Turnout was low at 38 percent (although that's about in line with an off-year election). Some people thought the price tag was too big. Some people don't have a good feeling about their job or their retirement package and worry about bigger expenses. Some thought the projects were frivolous. Some hate taxes. Some just don't trust Pima County to deliver.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson said her "biggest disappointment" was the rejection of the $200 million road bond and in particular, the funding for the Sonoran Corridor, a new southside highway to link I-10 to I-19 and create a bypass near high-tech hubs like Raytheon and UA Tech Park.

"We need to find a way to move forward and get some of that done, particularly as it relates to D-M and Raytheon," Bronson said. "If we don't have a way to get that done, this community is in for really hard times."

Bronson was already looking for a Plan B last week. She pitched the idea of asking voters to support a countywide half-cent sales tax, which is already in place in every other county in Arizona. The revenue from the sales tax would partially go to cutting property taxes and partially go to fixing roads and funding major projects like the Sonoran Corridor.

Supervisor Ray Carroll said he was "willing to entertain the idea" of asking voters to pass a half-cent sales tax if it were targeted to property-tax cuts and road repair.

Carroll said that he would prefer an increase in gas taxes at the state and federal levels to fund transportation, but until that happens, Pima County has to figure out a way to pay for street repairs.

"Let's let the voters decide if they're interested in fixing roads, one way or the other," said Carroll.

Pima County Supervisor Ramon Valadez recalled he had misgivings about moving forward this year with the bond package because he feared the economy still hadn't recovered enough for people to feel confident about increasing their taxes.

"It wasn't really the message of the opponents as much as fear," Valadez said. "If you talk to business leaders, they're starting to see the economy pick up, but until our working folks see that benefit, we're going to be in a similar place. If you go into the grocery store and your dollar doesn't buy as much as it did five years ago and you're not sure whether or not you're going to pay your bills at the end of the month, even $20 a year may seem like a lot. I get it."

The bond loss dampened the mood at the gathering of Democrats who were celebrating their reelection to the Tucson City Council at the Doubletree Hotel. While the Democrats were happy about their big wins, there was shock and concern about the defeat of the $815 million county bond package.

Rothschild, who faced no opposition, wryly declared victory before the first results were released. But he later told the Weekly that he was surprised and disappointed by the failure of the entire bond package.

"I thought the voters of this community would support roads, would support parks, support economic development," Rothschild said.

He said that the council now needed to see if there's a way to persuade voters to support projects in Tucson.

"We need to go back and look at why the bonds failed," Rothschild said. "We need to take a focused look at what our needs and projects are to improve the city. We need more road money. We need money for our downtown facilities. And we need money for our parks. It's going to require a very focused, narrow strategy so that people will support paying a little extra for what they believe is a lot more."

The council considered asking voters to approve changes to the city charter that would have allowed the city to consider new funding streams, including higher property or sales taxes. Two other charter amendments, giving the mayor the same powers as council members and reducing civil-service protection for department heads, did pass.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero, who captured about 57 percent of the vote in her race against Republican challenger Bill Hunt, said that she was "really happy. I'm glad the voters saw beyond the mudslinging and trying to bring Tucson down. I'm glad they want to return us to the council. We have a really good team. Just like any other family, there are disagreements, there is push and pull, but we are on the same page and we want to move Tucson forward."

But Romero added she was "feeling sad in my heart" over the voters' rejection of the bonds.

"All these projects that would have improved quality of life and bring jobs not just to Tucson but the region weren't supported," Romero said. "It's bad news for Tucson and bad news for the community."

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