Special bond election is too costly - The state's hurting for money. So is the city of Tucson. Pima County is, too, but it's not acting that way.

June 23, 2003

Arizona Star

Pima County, AZ - Tuesday, the county Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to hold a special bond election in May to decide whether the public should finance a desert conservation plan. An advisory committee has suggested a price tag of $250 million to purchase and preserve open space.

Holding an election is all well and good.

But a special election will cost the county $900,000. The supervisors could have placed the bond question on the November 2004 regular election ballot instead, holding the cost down.

In the proposed $1.02 billion budget for the next fiscal year, Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry has recommended 4.5 percent in budget cuts for county departments except courts and law enforcement.

The same day that the Democrat-controlled board authorized the special election, it voted to farm out Kino Community Hospital's major medical services to four private organizations. Red ink had forced the board to shed the work and scale back hospital services.

Last month, Huckelberry revealed that construction on a 550-bed jail expansion may have to cease because there would be no money to operate it.

And in April, County Attorney Barbara LaWall wrote the board warning that budget cuts would be devastating.

Supervisor Ray Carroll pushed to include the open space bond on the general election ballot, in part to save money and in part for another reason: Accountability. The supervisors, said Carroll, one of two Republicans on the five-member board, should tie their own own political future to the sweeping conservation plan by linking the bond vote with their own re-election bids on the November ballot.

He called the plan the board's "hallmark."

"The conservation plan is the issue that makes or breaks us as a board," said Carroll.

Don't paint Carroll as a critic of a plan. At least not yet. He said he supports some form of a desert conservation plan.

"It's a common-sense approach," Carroll said.

But common sense is what the board majority claimed in approving a more expensive May special election.

Putting the open space bond on the 2004 ballot would mix it in with a host of other issues, from the presidential election to initiatives closer to home, said Supervisor Sharon Bronson.

The conservation plan and its financing are serious enough to warrant their own moment at the ballot box, Bronson said.

The cost of a special election is an issue, but the concern over distraction with too many ballot items carries more weight in Bronson's view.

Fellow Democrat Dan Eckstrom said the county historically has scheduled special elections for bond questions.

Paying more for a special election is "the cost of doing business," he said. "I think the people understand that."

They may. But they also understand that $900,000 can pay for county programs and staff.

In the spirit of public service, I called several county department heads to find out how they could use $900,000. No one called back except Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, politically insulated because he is elected by the voters, too. Dupnik praised the board's decision.

So I came up with a few alternatives of my own on how the county could spend nearly a million dollars:

For $823,173, the county could hire 10 deputies and one sergeant for the School Resource Officer Program.

Or for $450,000, the county, about half of the Tucson-Pima Public Library system, could buy 18,000 books or hire nine new employees.

And if the board were really concerned for the environment, it could purchase 36 Toyota Priuses - the gas-saving, hybrid vehicle that several members of the Tucson City Council wanted to drive.

The county could leave the city green with envy.

* Contact Ernesto Portillo Jr. at 573-4242 or e-mail netopjr@azstarnet.com. He appears on "Arizona Illustrated," KUAT-TV Channel 6, at 6:30 p.m. and midnight Fridays.


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