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Political Notebook: City manager to employee parking complaints: 'Cheese with that whine'
Political Notebook

Political Notebook: City manager to employee parking complaints: 'Cheese with that whine'

Tucson City Manager Michael Ortega apologized to city employees after he was caught on a “hot mic” disparaging concerns about paying for parking spots they’re not using while a large chunk of them are working from home.

On May 12, during an employee video town hall aimed at addressing concerns as the city deals with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Ortega made his critiques after thinking the video call had completed.

“These people and the damn parking,” Ortega said, according to a recording sent to the Star. “We just got done talking about how I’m trying to keep you employed, and you want me to reimburse you for your parking. It’s like, God, you want a little cheese with that whine? C’mon, that’s terrible.”

Jonathan Schlecht, president for the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, said he’s “disappointed” and “very surprised at the callousness” of Ortega’s statement, adding that the reimbursement for parking has been one of a number of concerns for city employees.

“These people need their hard-earned money returned to them,” Schlecht said. “This is an important time. We shouldn’t put up facades. We should be working with each other trying during these times. … We’re here to work things out. Hearing that from the top is really disappointing.”

Ortega has apologized to the city staff at least twice, once during a call later that day and again during a town hall this week. He said that he did hear from employees, including one who sent him an email outlining why paying for parking is a concern.

“I responded and apologized and outlined my frustration when dealing with larger issues. It also sensitized me to the importance of some of these issues,” he told the Star.

He said he was venting frustration that the parking questions came just after he finished a talk about potential furloughs and layoffs of employees. He said that he’s been laser-focused on dealing with the budget as a whole as the city tries to absorb the effects of the coronavirus, including a drop in sales tax revenues.

“My frustration showed in a way that … I apologize,” he said. “No disrespect was intended.”

Conflicting signals on malaria drug

President Trump stirred up health experts Tuesday when he announced that he has been taking hydroxychloroquine in hopes of staving off the coronavirus, despite warnings about potentially deadly side effects from the unproven treatment.

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have cautioned people against taking the anti-malaria drug for COVID-19.

So has Dr. Janko Nikolich-Zugich, head of the Department of Immunobiology at the University of Arizona School of Medicine.

“Until and unless there are clinical trials that are done with large numbers of people that can show effectiveness of any of these drugs, I would stay away from them by all means,” he said during a telephone town hall late last month.

But Sen. Martha McSally, who hosted the call for almost 16,000 participants, immediately muddied that message, noting that there has been “anecdotal evidence” from “other providers” who say the drug is beneficial to people with mild or moderate coronavirus symptoms.

At the end of the town hall, McSally asked if Nikolich-Zugich had any parting advice for listeners.

“Listen to what your public health officials are saying and what the administration is saying,” he said.

The doctor didn’t say what people should do when those two groups give conflicting advice.

Local governments stand to gain a billion

More than $1 billion in federal money could flow to Pima County and its cities in the next two years under the latest — and largest — coronavirus relief bill approved by the House of Representatives late last week.

But the HEROES Act faces stiff opposition in the Senate, where Republican leaders are dismissing it as a bloated, liberal-policy wish list. President Trump has already threatened to veto the House version of the more than $3 trillion bill.

If passed, however, the largest economic relief package in U.S. history could send more than $562 million to Pima County and almost $402 million to the city of Tucson by 2021, according to estimates released by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Other “estimated awards” on the list include $23.2 million for Marana, $22.4 million for Oro Valley, $15 million for Sahuarita and $2.8 million for South Tucson over the next two years.

The House bill would send an estimated $10.1 billion to state government agencies in Arizona by 2021.

CD2 Republican gains club’s seal of approval

Brandon Martin, a Republican running in Congressional District 2, picked up an endorsement from the Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a prominent conservative political group.

The group, which most recently made headlines for funding opposition to light-rail expansion in Phoenix, endorsed a number of Republicans in races statewide, including Sen. Martha McSally, and state legislators from the Tucson area, including Rep. Mark Finchem and Sen. Vince Leach.

The list also included Martin, a defense contractor who is running for the opportunity to challenge incumbent U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, for the Southern Arizona seat.

Extra costs piling up, educators tell Congress

Education leaders across the state sent a letter to members of Arizona’s congressional delegation urging lawmakers to fight for additional financial relief for K-12 schools, which have extensive costs due to the coronavirus.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in late March, allocated $286 million for Arizona’s K-12 schools and another $69 million in flexible dollars for any education entity, at the governor’s discretion.

The letter — addressed to Arizona’s two U.S. senators and nine representatives, and signed by Arizona schools chief Kathy Hoffman and other education stakeholders — pointed to expenses schools are already shouldering in overcoming challenges to serve students who lack devices and broadband access for online learning; covering the cost of cleaning and disinfecting school sites; and feeding low-income children.

Tucson’s largest school district has already calculated $8.5 million in increased costs due to higher spending and revenue losses brought on by the coronavirus closures. It is not clear yet what schools will look like when the next school year begins in August, but it is likely the extra costs will continue to mount.

Possible expenses include more investments in remote learning in case of future school closures because of the coronavirus, ongoing enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, providing personal protective equipment to staff and students, and implementing social distancing guidelines, the letter says.

Additionally, the need to address mental health issues and food insecurity among students is only enhanced by rising unemployment and financial instability caused by the pandemic, the letter says.

The Arizona Department of Education is still working out the model and timeline for the distribution of CARES Act funds, which the letter says “will only scrape the surface of the costs and challenges district and charter schools have and will continue to incur as a result of this virus.”

“In the face of a global pandemic, Arizona schools and educators continue to be a beacon of hope for our communities,” Hoffman said in a prepared statement. “In addition to providing vital nutrition services, schools are working overtime to meet the academic, social and emotional needs of students. Schools will need ongoing resources in order to provide the critical supports families in Arizona rely on.”

Justin Sayers

Henry Brean

Henry Brean

Justin Sayers

Danyelle Khmara

Contact reporter Justin Sayers at jsayers1@tucson.com or 573-4192. Twitter: @_JustinSayers. Facebook: JustinSSayers.

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