If you’ve watched Pima County for long, you know where this road-repair initiative is likely to end up.
The question is whether that endpoint is openly justified or the result of obscure dealmaking.
Last Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved a list of road repairs arrived at by the county’s Transportation Advisory Committee. This citizen group was in charge of recommending how to spend about $20 million available from a property-tax increase to fix a $400 million road problem. Only $8.6 million of that was available to fix roads in the unincorporated county.
Now, this coming Tuesday, the board is going to reconsider the decision it made last week and take a second look at modifications requested by the appointees of the two Republican supervisors, Steve Christy and Ally Miller.
With that piddling amount of money to deal with a gargantuan problem, it’s no wonder the committee’s work took on a Lord of the Flies aspect at its last meeting, Nov. 28. In unincorporated Pima County, the roads generally stink, and everyone wants theirs fixed first. It’s eat or be eaten — get your roads fixed before somebody else snatches the money.
The committee’s problem: It came up with two approaches to prioritizing which roads get repaired that in the end conflicted.
One approach: They agreed to spend the money on roads that are in poor but not failed condition — a “5” but not lower on the so-called PASER scale.
That way, they decided, they could repair more roads and prevent them from falling into failed condition. But those 5-ranked roads will only get a spray-sealing treatment, not the rebuild that the failed roads need.
The committee also agreed to prioritize the roads by how heavily used they are, leaving out most rural roads. And they decided to repair subdivision-by-subdivision, so that the repairs could be grouped, rather than repairing individual streets that might be separated by miles from the next one.
The county staff, led by Rob Lane, fed the criteria into their computers and came out with a list of subdivision repairs that met the criteria and the unincorporated county’s $8.6 million budget.
But the committee also agreed to another approach. That was to allow the representatives of each supervisor’s district to recommend changes to the list of projects the computer spat out. This is where the conflict is simmering and ready to erupt on Tuesday.
The appointees of the three Democratic supervisors agreed to the list that the county staff came up with, but the representatives of the two Republicans, Miller and Christy, asked for modifications. The committee rejected those modifications and sent the staff-created list to the county board, which approved them last week.
But now, the board is going to look again. And the best guess is, it’s likely to give consideration to the changes recommended by Christy’s appointees, while rejecting those made by Miller’s representatives.
Sounds unfair, right? Maybe, but maybe not.
Christy’s appointees, Lucretia Free and Sergio Arellano are both employees of his office, which is unusual for a citizens committee. But they made their proposed changes systematically. They met with community representatives from Green Valley, the Vail area and the Tanque Verde area and came back with a relatively limited list of changes, mostly adding subdivisions in Green Valley that were requested by the area’s council.
This was arguably justified: The abstract criteria set up by the committee resulted in only $51,200 allocated to repairing Green Valley roads, largely because so many are failed that they were left off the list. But under the District 4 appointees’ plan for dividing the available money, Green Valley should have received $600,000 worth of repairs.
By adding seven subdivisions with failed roads to the list, though, Free and Arellano would reduce the number of miles repaired in District 4 the first year from 21.8 to 14.95 and the number of subdivisions serviced from 29 to 25.
The District 1 appointees, Chris DeSimone and Reggie Drout, didn’t show as systematic an approach to their modifications.
DeSimone, who hosts a morning radio show on KVOI 1030-AM, told me Friday, “There’s so many hurting neighborhoods, that we wanted to give a little bit of spread across District 1.” So, geographic distribution was one of his criteria. Yet, five of the subdivisions he and Drout proposed adding to the list of recipients were in one small area, Hidden Valley, near East Snyder Road and North Sabino Canyon Road.
DeSimone also noted that he and Drout held town halls and otherwise took lots of public input. True, and two of the subdivisions with the most persistent residents, Sabino Town and Country Estates and Moondance Patio Homes, were included in their list of modifications, even though they have failed roads.
But the county staff kept track of public input — made via an online form, at the committee meetings and at town halls — and most of the subdivisions DeSimone and Drout put on the list were the subject of little public input. I could find only one request to the committee from the five Hidden Valley subdivisions, in addition to a few calls to Miller’s office.
Contrast that to the Orangewood Estates, a subdivision with failed roads in District 1, whose residents made 210 requests to the committee.
So why Hidden Valley? Who knows. In the search for an explanation, Miller’s critics have landed on the fact that Kevin Leman, a renowned local psychologist who has founded charter schools, lives nearby and would benefit from repaired roads. DeSimone serves on the board of Leman’s educational company. But DeSimone told me Leman had nothing to do with it.
Whatever the reason, the many changes recommended by the District 1 appointees would drastically reduce the mileage repaired and the subdivisions served. Instead of 31.8 miles repaired in the first year, 12.55 miles would be repaired. Instead of 52 subdivisions benefited, only 20 would benefit under the proposed changes.
DeSimone protested at the Nov. 28 meeting that there was no reason to have the committee at all if they were simply going to “rubber stamp” the recommendations of county staff. His argument has some merit. But member Bob Gugino countered that he wouldn’t have approved the staff’s recommendations if he didn’t think they’d done a good job.
Come Tuesday, what the supervisors need to do is clear: Figure out how the District 4 and District 1 appointees came to their recommended modifications of the staff’s plan. Consider their reasoning, then vote accordingly.
No matter what happens, the different districts will get the same amount of money applied to their roads, so it’s not as if rejecting the appointees’ recommendations will shift money to another district. There will be no repeat of the 2014 incident, in which Miller overrode county staff selections to have a road near her home repaired, and the supervisors responded by taking away the little road-repair money allotted to her district.
The only question is whether the appointees followed a defensible process using identifiable criteria in deciding who gets that rare county service — a repaired road.