Ward 3 candidates split on police and transit funding

2013-10-17T00:00:00Z 2013-10-17T14:13:06Z Ward 3 candidates split on police and transit fundingBy Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

City voters will begin receiving their ballots this weekend for this year’s City Council races and propositions.

To help voters decide, the Star sent a questionnaire to all candidates asking them how they will address some of the issues facing Tucson over the next four years. Over the next three days, we will print their responses. We begin with the rematch in the Ward 3 race.

The Candidates

Karin Uhlich:

Party: Democrat.

Age: 50.

Employer and position: Founder/co-director, Center for Economic Integrity.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in social work, Michigan State University.

Political experience: City councilwoman for Ward 3, 2005 to present.

Top priority: I will continue guiding Tucson’s steady job growth and economic recovery so poverty decreases and our middle class expands. We can do that best by providing top-notch core

services (public safety, streets/transit) and a good quality of life overall for city residents and by growing jobs in industries with best long-term potentials (e.g. health care, solar energy, transportation and logistics, trade and tourism).

Ben Buehler-Garcia:

Party: Republican.

Age: 52.

Employer and position: Principal, RONIN Business Services.

Education: B.S., public administration/criminal justice major, University of Arizona.

Political experience: 2009 Ward 3 City Council candidate, nine years on Tucson Industrial Development Authority, two years on Tucson Economic & Workforce Development Selection Committee.

Top priority: Return spending priorities to core services; public safety, transportation and parks. Return sense of pride to Tucson; graffiti, streets and crime rates. Make Tucson a market within which businesses and employers feel like partners.

The Issues

How would you use your position as a City Council member to attract new businesses, or help existing ones grow, in Tucson?

Uhlich: Continue cutting red tape and streamlining processes for business startups/expansions as we have by changing rules for moving into buildings, simplifying our Land Use Code, adopting a Uniform Development Code, preventing problems in inspection processes, opening a central small business hotline in the city manager’s office.

Target city spending and investment to local businesses as we have with procurement code changes and placing reserve funds in local banks.

Build our economy by focusing on our competitive strengths and strategic industry development: health care sector, border trade/tourism, transportation/logistics, solar energy, biotech and aerospace.

Buehler-Garcia: I will aggressively and proactively leverage 25 years of community and economic development experience to develop and introduce plans that will help guide our community back toward prosperity.

Tucson boasts a great deal of expertise and community leaders who share my passion for a Tucson renaissance. These leaders from the business and civic community as well as retired city employees will be brought together in a “kitchen cabinet” as a resource for advice and ideas.

Next year, the city faces many budget obstacles including how to pay for streetcar expenses, retirement costs and more. How will you address some of next year’s budget gaps?

Uhlich: Just as we have for the past five years, tough choices must be made, including negotiations on employee benefits and identifying services and activities that could be handled more efficiently through regional intergovernmental agreements which have the potential for consolidating functions such as procurement, fleet services, etc.

Buehler-Garcia: We must stop admiring the problems and begin to take concrete actions focusing on expanding the overall revenue base from which city programs are funded:

Cost estimates to immediately train replacements for the several hundred public safety personnel we will be losing over the next couple of years and aging public safety vehicles.

A plan for fundamentally restructuring how we fund road maintenance.

Identifying opportunities to convert revenue deficit projects to revenue generators. (TCC, golf courses, etc.)

The Tucson Police Department expects to lose 100 officers by the end of 2015. How do you propose the city address this issue to minimize impacts to both police service levels and the city budget?

Uhlich: We averted layoffs and have restarted recruitment and training academies so that vacancies can be filled with ready and qualified officers. This must remain a top priority so our effective prevention and community-based approaches to safety continue. We have preserved the ratio of commissioned officers per 1,000 residents during the downturn. We also apply technology and common sense in support of TPD’s mission (e.g. gun background checks; red light cameras so fewer officers assigned to traffic safety while reducing accidents; and managing our interface with Border Patrol because SB 1070 diverts resources and can undermine TPD’s core public safety mission).

Buehler-Garcia: The issue goes beyond the police department and should include the several hundred fire department personnel expected to retire in FY2016-2017. First priority must be given to building up these core services or else we will not be able to build the business base to fund future needs.

Next year’s combined funding for public transportation from all sources will be $152 million, nearly $10 million more than the proposed police budget.

We should explore cost savings and recovery issues in this area in order to fund public safety.

Strategically examine which excess city properties may be sold such that they generate maximum one-time revenue in the immediate term and are best positioned to rapidly begin generating tax revenue.

Pensions will cost the city more than $70 million next year for city and public safety employees. What would you do to reduce these costs?

Uhlich: Much of this deficit is due to our dramatic reduction in the number of city employees (down from 6,100 to 4,800) and the huge losses in the stock market during the downturn. We have made changes ahead of the nation beginning in 2006, and must do more. We have engaged a group of citizen experts to help craft an aggressive multiyear plan. We must put all additional options on the table and recognize that defined benefit and defined contribution plans are two forms, while there are other hybrid and alternative models that we can examine for incoming employees.

Buehler-Garcia: Let’s begin with what I wouldn’t do. I would not have given employees a raise in direct contravention to advice from budget staff and reduce the amount of required employee contributions for those city employees hired after 2006.

Immediate actions that must be taken include:

Continuing to put pressure on the state Legislature to overhaul the public safety pension program.

Make changes to aspects that unduly increase pension payments by inflating end of year compensation such as “pension spiking”.

Take action to convert to a 401(k) or hybrid-style plan that is more reflective of the current economic realities for any future hires.

How would you begin addressing the city’s $1 billion it has in vehicle repairs and replacements, building maintenance and other unmet capital needs?

Uhlich: First we must rethink that $1 billion capital plan. I have already insisted that we stop building new facilities and reduce our land/building inventory to keep future operating/maintenance costs in check. We must also replace vehicles in a manner that reduces ongoing fuel consumption and other costs (e.g. compressed natural gas and hybrid vehicles in transit and environmental services). Expanding intergovernmental agreements for certain functions could also reduce the numbers of vehicles needed and costs incurred by each jurisdiction and must be explored (e.g. grounds maintenance equipment/vehicles and better buying power through collective purchasing).

Buehler-Garcia: The only long-term solution is growing the revenue pie by moving Tucson back to truly being business- and resident-friendly by taking proper care of core priorities.

Building leaseback opportunities should be examined as a way of generating revenue specifically earmarked for vehicle replacement and other appropriate capital needs.

I will work with city economic development staff and local agencies to develop specific strategies for expanding our local and regional economic strengths: aerospace, mining technology, the military and tourism.

What is the most important issue facing the city?

Uhlich: Our top priority is continuing our economic recovery so all residents can get a decent job/income and so our overall quality of life is protected and improved. We are pulling ourselves out of the worst economic disaster in a generation and we are doing so while remaining true to our core values (conversation, civil rights, cultural diversity). Better jobs and economic growth will allow us to fund our core public services. Those goals are aided when we support local business growth and invest strategically in sectors where we hold competitive advantages: renewable energy, health care, trade/logistics, etc.

Buehler-Garcia: City government must focus upon establishing a clean, safe and functional environment for both residents and businesses. And making our city a community in which Tucsonans can once again take pride.

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