Mayor Bob Walkup has staked much of his seemingly shaky political capital on a rallying call for Tucson to annex surrounding areas such as the Catalina Foothills or Vail.
Walkup, facing a recall effort, made annexation one of four prongs in his 11th State of the City address, saying dire economic times require aggressive action to help bring as much as $60 million in new state money to alleviate the city's ongoing budget crisis.
But Walkup acknowledged last week that he has no detailed plan beyond general talking points.
His plan is to have Byron Howard, head of the city's annexation department, make a plan. Except Howard is the sole surviving staffer in the department, which was all but eliminated because of the city's budget problems.
Howard said he doesn't have a plan, either, except wait for marching orders from City Manager Mike Letcher or a majority of the City Council.
The mayor's vision of manifest destiny isn't new. For 40 years, city leaders have seen expansion as a way to bring in extra tax dollars.
But it has never been an easy sell, particularly in areas that are already heavily populated. And it promises to be even more difficult now - with a city administration that's cutting services, raising taxes and fees, and facing criticism over mismanaging Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment.
"Now is the time" to shatter the resistance, Walkup said. "Our people are hurting. We need to get competitive and get cracking on this."
The city has been effective in recent years completing targeted annexations. Raytheon Missile Systems was annexed as well as half of the University of Arizona Tech Park - and the other half is in the works.
But those were large areas with few owners whose needs had to be satisfied. Luring the areas Walkup now has in his sights is far more complex because it involves thousands of individual parcels and owners.
In those areas the city still faces the same hurdles it did more than 40 years ago, when Mayor Jim Corbett vowed to take in the burbs "kicking and screaming" if necessary - a council whose political complexion doesn't match those in outlying areas and a general resistance to another layer of government.
No top-down effort
Walkup says the way to make annexation happen this time around is to enlist the private sector to help make the sale. It can't be a city-led, top-down effort, but must also come from "respected business leaders," he insisted.
But so far, he doesn't seem to have lined up a lot of private-sector help. He named Ron Shoopman president of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council, as a supporter, and said he had made the rounds to a group of bankers and a Rotary Club, where one member raised her hand and asked how she could help.
Things the city could do, Walkup said, include creating a hot line to answer questions and recruit hundreds of volunteers to knock on doors to sell annexation, as well as hold "information parties" - although he acknowledged information about the things people might want to know, like where fire stations will be located or how much their tax bills might go down, could be limited.
Walkup's pitch is that Pima County would be able to reduce its property-tax rates because the city would pick up some county services. The city would have no control over the county cutting taxes, however, and the county doesn't have a track record of cuts in response to previous annexations.
To bring the more conservative Foothills into a city that's solidly Democratic, Walkup is also proposing a City Charter amendment adding wards - the implication being the Foothills would get its own council members and therefore a "seat at the table."
But Walkup later acknowledged he couldn't make that promise. The U.S. Department of Justice must sign off on electoral district changes to protect voting rights. In addition, a complex redistricting process would be unlikely to green-light wards drawn just for the affluent foothills where median home values are 149 percent higher than in north-central Tucson.
The best he could hope for is that any new district would reflect the political orientation of the new areas.
"We have the obligation to at least create the opportunity for ward expansion," Walkup said. "How it ends up I couldn't have a clue."
Country Club first?
Humberto Lopez, chairman of the recall effort against Walkup and two council members, said he was happy enough with the mayor's speech to consider calling the campaign off altogether. He met with the mayor before his speech, and two more times this past week. Annexation and ward expansion were part of the discussion.
He said there was talk of starting with Tucson Country Club Estates, a small island in the Tanque Verde area, where some of the community's heavyweights live. It's a manageable area in terms of size, Lopez noted. And if it were the first domino to fall, it might send a strong message to other like areas in the Foothills.
Although Lopez didn't mention it, another advantage might be that county Supervisor Ray Carroll, a vocal annexation opponent, no longer lives there.
Lopez isn't the only one who thinks Tucson Country Club should be in the city.
Auto magnate Jim Click, who lives there, said he's supported the concept for years because of the money it would bring in. "We could use that," he said, noting success will take "real leadership and hard work."
"I'm not in the city and that's wrong. I should be in the city. The Foothills should be in the city."
But Walkup said starting with the country club first would be "inappropriate."
Returning $60 million
Civic and business leaders have for years touted annexation as a way to return an estimated $60 million in state shared taxes to this region - tax revenues designated for cities that now go to Maricopa County because 94 percent of its residents are incorporated.
An Arizona Daily Star analysis of state shared revenues indicates $60 million a year is not unrealistic, if the city could succeed where it has failed for decades.
The city share of gas taxes, lottery proceeds, and state sales and income taxes totals about $320 per citizen, based on the most recent state figures available.
With an estimated 366,000 unincorporated residents, the city would have to annex only 51 percent to get the $60 million.
But if money is the motive, Howard said some areas aren't necessarily cost-effective to annex. The cost of extending or expanding roads and water lines and providing police and fire service to far-flung areas has to be considered, he said.
"Just annexing something does not guarantee it's in the best interest of the city," he said, saying it takes months to work up what an area might do to the city's bottom line.
Walkup said he has no benchmarks or timelines established to measure success. In two years, he said, he wants to absorb state land on the southeast side - an area Howard said is not on the annexation radar screen. In three years, Walkup wants to have something happen with the Foothills, but he isn't clear exactly what that should be.
Southern Arizona Leadership's Shoopman said the charter changes, particularly the additional wards, have to bear fruit before annexation will have a chance. But even then, he said, it's going to be "a tough hill to climb." He acknowledged it's one thing to ask the community to do the right thing for the larger good, but it's another altogether to make a pitch to a family in the Foothills about what's in it for them on a personal level.
Case in point: Vail resident Michael Hecht, who is afraid the city will waste the new money it gets, and he won't be able to continue his air-gun target-shooting hobby inside the city limits.
" I moved outside the city limits specifically to get away from city laws and red tape," Hecht said. "It's about bringing in more tax revenue for the city to waste at the expense of the taxpayer."
Sally Slosser, who ran an unsuccessful 1997 effort to incorporate Catalina Foothills, said she tried to make the same arguments Walkup is making now - it makes no sense to send tax dollars up to Phoenix.
But more state money didn't trump the desire to be free of another layer of government, she said.
"I don't know if that sentiment has changed that much," she said. "There's such a long history of lousy government that you can't blame people for not wanting to be a part of it."