Appeals court rules city pension overhaul off ballot

2013-09-13T00:00:00Z Appeals court rules city pension overhaul off ballotBy Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Tucson voters likely won’t be deciding the fate of the city’s pension system after all.

The Arizona Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling and ordered an injunction blocking an initiative overhauling the city’s pension from being placed on the November city election ballot.

Unless the Committee for Sustainable Retirement Benefits, the initiative’s sponsors, get a hearing before the Arizona Supreme Court, and soon, the ruling means the measure likely won’t go to voters this year.

The deadline to appear on the ballot is Monday. Ballots for military personnel and overseas voters have to be sent out then.

Because of the tight timelines leading up to the election, the Appeals Court issued no explanation of the decision, indicating a written ruling will come later.

Despite the tight deadlines, the committee isn’t conceding defeat.

“While we were surprised by the court’s decision, the appeals process is not complete,” Chairman Art Flagg said in an email. “We remain optimistic that the initiative will qualify for the ballot.”

In July, two city employees filed suit asking for the removal of more than 10,000 signatures because felons or unregistered out-of-state circulators collected many of them.

Pima County Superior Court Judge James Marner threw out more than 5,500 signatures and ordered election officials to recalculate the numbers.

Once it appeared likely the petition initiative had enough remaining signatures to qualify, the plaintiffs dropped their appeal in Superior Court and filed in appellate court.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Roopali Desai cheered the appellate court’s decision as a victory for voters and the integrity of the initiative process.

“We need to protect the initiative process to make sure it’s not abused in the future as it was clearly done in this case,” Desai said.

The committee’s initiative drive began in June and collected more than 20,000 signatures by the July deadline.

While operated locally, a Virginia-based libertarian group, the Liberty Initiative Fund, provided most of the financing.

The group intended the Tucson initiative to be the first of many ballot measures it would fund across the country as a means to rein in unsustainable public pensions.

The proposed initiative created headaches for city officials as they wrestled with how to pay for the projected costs.

City officials estimated first-year costs alone would add $24 million to an already overburdened city budget.

Some feared the proposal would lead the city into financial ruin and bankruptcy court.

Although the initiative is dead, some say, pension problems still remain.

“Just because this won’t be on the ballot should in no way cause us to assume we don’t have more work to do on pension reforms,” said Councilman Steve Kozachik.

The city expects to pay about $34 million in non-public-safety pensions alone this fiscal year. It paid around $28 million last year.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com. Follow on Twitter @DarrenDaRonco

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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