UNBALANCEDPima County Supervisor "Sugar" Ray Carroll put on a command performance last week when the Board of Supervisors set the tentative $1.46 billion county budget on a party-line vote.
Carroll, along with fellow Republican Ann Day of District 1, voted against the budget, complaining that it didn't lower property-tax rates enough.
Carroll has been complaining that the Democratic supervisors--Sharon Bronson, Richard Elías and Ramón Valadez--won't seriously consider the alternative budget that he and Day proposed earlier this year.
But calling the GOP budget an alternative plan is like suggesting that those blueprints of the Starship Enterprise you can buy at Star Trek conventions are an alternative to the Phoenix Mars Lander. The Enterprise might look cool on TV, but it ain't gonna fly.
Neither does the Carroll-Day budget. As originally submitted, it wasn't a budget so much as a rambling rant about how taxes had increased too much and how Administrator Chuck Huckelberry should dip into county reserves to balance the budget rather than collect additional property taxes from new growth.
As Carroll explained to us last week: "You see the city of Tucson dipping into its contingency or rainy day fund. Why couldn't Chuck start dipping into some rainy-day funds?"
Gee, where have we heard that argument before? Let's see: President George W. Bush used it to justify cutting income taxes, with the vast majority of the breaks going to the wealthiest Americans. That's worked out real well--if by "real well," you mean leading to enormous federal deficits.
More recently, Republicans in the state Legislature made the same argument: State revenues were so strong that we needed to have income-tax cuts, with the vast majority going to--you guessed it--the wealthiest Arizonans. Now the state is contending with a $2 billion shortfall in the upcoming budget year, after draining the rainy-day fund and employing smoke-and-mirror tactics to resolve a $1.2 billion shortfall this year.
Call us crazy, but we're having a hard time believing that cutting taxes by dipping into reserves--which amount to all of 5 percent of the general-fund balance--is such a hot idea.
We have no doubt that there is waste, fraud and abuse in the county budget. There always has been, and there always will be. It's the nature of government spending, and it's the job of county supervisors--as well as the media and other watchdogs--to try to keep it to a minimum.
Carroll has, so far, done a pretty lousy job of pointing out where the waste is. Instead, he's focused on revenue collection, because he wants to appear like he's fighting for tax cuts--a message that he believes will resonate with his GOP district.
Carroll's complaints about the county budget might carry a little more weight if Pima County's budget was really out of control. But with this year's budget, the county's proposed tax rate is the lowest it has been since 1982.
In a year when the state is facing an economic meltdown, and the city of Tucson has a multi-million-dollar shortfall, Pima County is expected to finish the year with more than $26 million in the bank, along with another $8.6 million Huckelberry squirreled away in something he called the "tax-rate stabilization fund," which was designed to serve as a cushion during recessionary times.
That extra $8.6 million is going to come in handy this year. Huckelberry can use that money and take advantage of additional property-tax revenue from new growth to contend with inflation and backfill cuts in federal and state funding. He can also cut spending in some departments so he can boost spending in other departments where cuts don't make sense, such as public safety.
We see that as pretty smart budgeting--but Carroll says that rather than using about $14 million in additional property-tax revenues from new growth to balance the budget, the county should be dipping deeper into its surplus.
In an effort to prove that his budget can work, Carroll's aide, Scott Egan, sent out e-mails to various department heads asking them how their department would be affected if they spent the same amount of money this year as they did last year.
Huckelberry, when he learned about the request, instructed department heads to ignore it. He says he did that for two reasons: First, the county has a noninterference ordinance, which means that elected officials are supposed to boss around Huckelberry, not individual department heads. Second, Huckelberry says the request didn't make any sense, especially in light of the fact that he was already asking most county departments to cut back spending by a few percentage points. Given that, Carroll's request would have been a big waste of time for county employees.
That dismissal has Carroll boiling. He says Huckelberry is trying to "confuse things and make hurdles out of nothing. ... He's just playing games. It's all about gamesmanship at this point. And Chuck is a great games player, and I'm just not that good at it."
After watching Ray play this game with the budget, we think he may be selling himself short.
If Carroll and Day had been successful in reducing the property-tax rate even further, it would have saved the owner of a $200,000 house about $22 next year--a minuscule savings that Carroll called a "stimulus package." Yeah, that $1.83 a month is really going to reignite the economy.
SPEAKING OF COUNTY SPENDING...Pima County is one step closer to delaying a ballot proposal to ask voters to approve the sale of $900 million in general-obligation bonds for a variety of projects, including open space and parks.
Last week, the county's bond committee voted to advise the Board of Supervisors to scrap the idea of holding an election in November 2008. Instead, they'll be advising supes to schedule a November 2009 election for the bond package, says Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
Huckelberry says the committee still needs to whittle down about $1.4 billion in requests from various subcommittees to a total package of no more than $900 million, not counting about $560 million in revenue bonds for the sewer system to rebuild the Roger Road treatment plant and deal with a list of environmental requirements.
BACK TO SQUARE ONECongressman Raúl Grijalva and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sent a letter last week to Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jeanine Derby, suggesting that the federal agency reject the current plan from Augusta Resource Corporation to mine in the Santa Rita Mountains.
Augusta owns the land where it wants to dig for copper, but it wants to be able to dump tailings onto National Forest land, which means it needs to get permission from the Forest Service.
Grijalva and Giffords, who both oppose Augusta's plan, said that the Forest Service should inform Augusta that their original plan was not sufficient and that the company should be required to submit a new one.
The two Democrats said the mining proposal needed "exhaustive studies on the water demands, impacts and alternatives associated with this project due to the lifeblood link of water to the fragile nature of this region of the Sonoran Desert."
Because Augusta's plan doesn't delve into those matters deeply enough, Grijalva and Giffords say in their letter that the "the scoping process has been flawed from the beginning and should be restarted."
Derby said last week that "there are a lot of things I need to consider" before she responds to the letter from Grijalva and Giffords.