Tucson voters will have to wait a little longer to find out whether two propositions related to funding Reid Park Zoo upgrades have passed.
Pima County election officials are expected to count roughly 10,000 ballots Thursday, Nov. 9, with a majority cast by city voters — the only ones who could vote on the zoo tax propositions.
Proposition 202, which would adjust the city charter, was on track to pass, ahead by 3,182 votes at last count. However, Prop. 203 was a much closer race, with voters opposed to the one-tenth-of-a-cent increase in the city sales tax ahead by only 350 votes.
The propositions, or the Future of Your Zoo initiative, would raise between $8 million and $10 million annually by increasing the city’s sales tax.
The bigger issue is what would happen to the zoo measure if Prop. 202 passes and Prop. 203 fails.
Despite assurances that both propositions needed to be approved by voters to pass the tax hike benefiting Reid Park Zoo before the election, a new legal analysis suggests the Tucson City Council might have the authority to approve the tax hike even if Prop. 203 is rejected by voters.
The devil is in the details of the official language of Prop. 202, the one that seems likely to pass.
Inside the language of Prop. 202 is the following sentence: “This Act should be liberally construed to ensure that the will of the people of the City of Tucson is carried out as described above.”
City Attorney Mike Rankin said the council might be asked to consider how to implement Prop. 202 with this clause but said that ultimately would be a political decision for the elected body.
He acknowledged such action could result in a lawsuit filed against the city, and a judge would decide how to untangle the complicated issue.
Councilman Steve Kozachik faulted the organizers of the zoo measure, saying the group should have followed the example of Prop. 101 earlier this year. In May, Tucson voters overwhelmingly supported a temporary half-cent sales-tax increase to pay for road repairs and public safety equipment and facilities. That increase was passed with one question on the ballot.
“They got bad legal advice when they did it with two separate questions,” he said.
However, he does think the council should discuss the issue if there is a split vote because he believes many voters were confused about the measure.
“It deserves a conversation,” he said.
Councilman Paul Cunningham also supports a council discussion but telegraphed he wasn’t sure he could support passing the tax increase if one of the propositions fails at the ballot box.
“I think any type of dialogue to ensure that voters are heard is important,” he said. “I am not sure I would vote the tax in, but I would definitely be in favor of discussion.”
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who is retiring, disagreed and picked up on the fact that thousands of voters left the Prop. 202 measure blank on their ballots.
At last count, 3,346 fewer people weighed in on the charter amendment proposition than the one raising the sales tax.
“I would not support mayor and council stepping in. I believe the will of the voters is explicitly expressed by the votes cast on each item on the ballot,” she said. “It is possible that voters support the zoo plan but that fewer are ready to vote for the tax at this time.”
Nancy Kluge, the president of the Reid Park Zoological Society, said she was aware of the issue but has not received legal advice on it.
For now, she said, her group would wait until all of the ballots are counted before deciding what to do.
County officials said they need a full day to process all outstanding ballots from Tuesday’s election and opted to wait until all the uncounted ballots — including votes cast at polling locations in the Oro Valley park bond issue — were ready to be counted.
The process of counting ballots requires on-site supervision from both political parties.