Tucson House set to get $50 million for upgrades, Marana reworks transitional housing rules

The city of Tucson panel that makes recommendations about retaining judges is telling the City Council that Chief Magistrate Antionio Riojas should be denied another term in office.

He established a policy that kept indigent DUI defendants from receiving proper counsel at the proper time.

The City Magistrate Merit Selection Commission made the recommendation ahead of Tuesday’s City Council vote to potentially reappoint Riojas.

In December 2022, Riojas set a procedure at city court that saw public defenders appointed for qualifying defendants only at their pre-trial conferences. That’s about 60 days after their arraignments. Riojas told the commission that the city Public Defender’s Office didn’t have the staff to assign defense lawyers any earlier.

However, the law requires those convicted of a DUI to spend at least a day in jail, so the right to counsel takes effect at arraignment. Local defense attorneys Michael Bloom and James Charnesky both warned Riojas in writing that his practice of late appointments was unconstitutional.

Worse, Riojas wrote Charnesky back and got kinda flip after explaining the staffing shortage: “Perhaps you and some of your colleagues would be willing to take some appointed legal cases to help us with our situation and our current practice can be terminated. I look forward to your response.”

In other words, if you – Mr. Private Practice Man – want to work pro bono then fine. Otherwise, we’re not changing.

Riojas’ answers didn’t sit well with the commission. There are no “staffing loopholes” to constitutional protections, the commissioners said.

“It is undisputed law that requires city magistrates appoint counsel to indigent DUI defendants at their arraignments. This has been law for more than 50 years. It is so fundamental to our system of justice that it is taught to every first-year law student in the country; it is drilled into every new prosecutor and defender who practices in our courts.”

Ouch.

But it got worse.

The commission also wrote in a letter to the council:

It is frankly disturbing that Riojas was apparently unaware of (the constitutional requirement). Equally, it is unthinkable to this commission that an experienced judge would require a law clerk or legal research materials to understand so basic a tenet of constitutional law.”

Riojas has been presiding magistrate for 23 years.

His written response to the commission’s recommendation remains that he was trying to help the Public Defender’s Office with staffing.

He does own up to the mistake, saying he would not repeat it.

“I admit my decision concerning the appointment of counsel at arraignments was ill-advised. However, I am only asking that this decision not be the decision that defines my service to the city of Tucson.”

He touts among his accomplishments the city’s Veteran’s Court, Domestic Violence Court, Homeless Court, leadership through the budget crisis during the Great Recession and numerous other things he says he did well.

His mistake may not define his time on the court and probably shouldn’t. Whether it should end it is for the Council to decide.

Tucson House rehab

The Tucson House was built in 1963 to be a sparkling new luxury apartment building. Now? Not so much.

The high-rise, at 1501 N. Oracle Road, has seen better decades and is a low-income housing building. It’s well-suited for implosion.

Demolition, however, is not in the cards – not yet anyway.

Instead, the city is set to receive a $50 million federal grant to rehab the aging beast’s 408 units and do other projects in the surrounding neighborhood.

The City Council will vote to accept the grant during its meeting on Tuesday.

It’s part of an overall strategy to kickstart development in the neighborhood. The plan is called “Thrive in the 05,” after the area’s ZIP code.

In 2018, the city applied for a U.S. Department of Urban Development grant “to develop a shared vision for the transformation” of the neighborhood. The next year, the city found more money from the U.S. Department of Justice to try to make the neighborhood safer to be run through the Arizona State University Office of Community Health, Engagement, and Resiliency. Next came the Daniel Rose Fellowship, run by the National League of Cities and Towns to further help in revitalizing the neighborhood.

Well, that’s how it’s done. Just commence a barrage of different resources into a neighborhood to help turn it around.

The trick is how to revitalize without gentrifying so the neighbors can’t afford to live there anymore.

The remainder of the money will, in addition to other investments, buy 200 apartments units in the area.

Big Boxes R Us

Well, I tried.

The City Council will provide a tax incentives for a Home Depot on the Southeast Side and a Bass Pro Shop at South Park Avenue and Interstate 10.

I went into depth on these projects twice and won’t rehash it all now.

The incentives are part of an economic development strategy to attract businesses to the city. The problem I have with the incentive is that incentives aren’t that necessary to attract retailers to a community of 1 million people. They’ll come anyway.

While the site-specific sales tax break can help with things like food deserts or providing retail opportunities in under-served parts of town, I’m not sure a Home Depot on South Houghton Road qualifies.

I would love a Bass Pro Shop because who doesn’t like nosing around an outdoor store. Nobody in my America.

The problem is the incentives should be doled out to companies that fit an economic need and raise the standard of living. I get that job opportunities on the South Side are important but will all big box retailers now demand to have their beaks wetted?

However, a keg-refurbishing company on Old Vail Road would do the trick. MicroStar Logistics is ready to build a $42 million warehouse that will employ 243 workers, with 25 of them earning more than $54,932 a year so it qualifies for the city’s primary jobs incentive.

The company is set to get an estimated $322,000 break on sales taxes.

That works.

Warehouse jobs tend to pay better than retail because everything pays better than retail (Journalism, notwithstanding).

Primary jobs are considered by economists to be the kind that pay pay well enough to create other jobs, like working at a Bass Pro Shop or a Home Depot.

MicroStar’s tax package is up for a notice-of-intent vote. The other two are up for final vote.

Jim’s dragon

The Tucson Council will also vote to approve naming rights for exhibits at the Reid Park Zoo.

When I first glanced at the list, it seemed kinda “meh.” The Angel Charity for Children World of Play and the Kasser Family Lotus Pavilion are fine names for the price of a partnership.

Then I saw the John M. Simpson Otter habitat and I thought: “Damn. Wish I had an otter habitat named after me.”

Then I realized Jim Click won again. I mean this is a guy who has had an old-school rep for giving money away anonymously. But who can blame the local auto magnate if he managed to snag for his kinfolk the name: “Click Family Komodo Dragon Habitat?”

Hell yeah! The zoo is getting a Komodo dragon as part of its Pathways to Asia expansion. 

Is it wrong to keep this apex predator in a zoo? Probably debatable. I know this much. If it were called the Blake Morlock Komodo Dragon Habitat, I’d be all in.

No word on whether the habitat includes a mid-sized sedan, but readers will now know what’s up if a Varanus komodoensis is spotted in a Hyundai Sonata cruising Speedway.

The Council is also set to enter into an agreement with Oro Valley to help the town secure three vehicles to be used as Sun Shuttle Dial-a-Ride service.

Tucson is just helping Oro Valley get the U.S. Department of Transportation grant to make the purchases. It won’t be on the hook for any money. The federal government will kick in $338,000 and Oro Valley will pay the other $84,500.

Smaller jurisdictions often work through bigger neighbors to apply for federal funds. So Oro Valley can’t say Tucson never did anything for ’em.

Chemistry not quite set

The Council will take up – for conversation only – the city’s efforts to fight homelessness, what’s going on with the PFAS chemicals in the city’s water and the status of the next round of projects for the regional transportation plan.

There’s not a lot to say about what’s going on with the Regional Transportation Authority’s second go. 

RTA Next is a hoped-for list of projects to be paid for by a 20-year extension of a half-cent sales tax first approved by voters in 2026. 

A Citizens Advisory Council and a team of staffers from the nine jurisdictions receiving RTA money are working on a draft plan to spend $2.3 billion over the course of the tax. Their deadline is Dec. 7.

Until they come up with that draft, there’s not a ton more detail to do into.

The big takeaway from the homelessness update is that Tucson police are reducing their role in tackling the problem. Instead, the city is focusing on providing people without homes the services they need to perhaps find one.

The Council has been getting monthly updates on homelessness for the better part of a year now. This installment is without trend lines or any sort of benchmark. It’s just city staff kinda telling the elected officials that “we’re working on it.”

Also, Mayor Regina Romero is asking the Council to discuss a new city ordinance that would protect city workers from the effects of heat.

Her request comes after Gov. Katie Hobbs declared a heat emergency in the state and as the temperatures are beginning to cool. However, with climate change the highs in Arizona are expected to remain hotter than normal for the desert and that’s saying something.

The PFAS update has a couple interesting turns. 

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are used as industrial solvents and have infiltrated into Tucson’s water supply. They originated at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and at Tucson International Airport because the chemicals are used in aviation.

The city has been working with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the enforcement end. On the “our-bad” side, the Air Force and Tucson Airport Authority are expected to pay for a good portion of the clean up.

ADEQ wrote to the parties and gave them until Sept. 30 to come up with a plan to figure out who pays for what.

It’s not clear what they came up with but it’s not the 30th yet.

There are a couple disputes. The Air Force is willing to help with 1.4-dioxin but has argued other PFAS chemicals can’t be pinned on them. The Airport Authority has been arguing that it has technical issues with sampling groundwater on and off site.

ADEQ is still finagling with the Air Force but not so much the Tucson Airport Authority. In a June 30 letter, it declared the airport has 14 days to “agree in principal” to conduct the sampling.

Well, that’s a big foot. ADEQ basically says “we know your new opinion because we’re giving it to you.”

Notice the state isn’t trying that with the Air Force, a service branch with a $185 billion budget, strike fighters and nuclear weapons.

Supes moving money

The Pima County Board of Supervisors will vote Tuesday to accept $925,000 in state money over five years destined for the Pima County Recorder’s Office.

When the Arizona Legislature sends money to Pima County, be wary.

In this case, the money is to be spent on making sure the voter rolls conform to state laws meant to cull those numbers. Could politics be in play?

There’s a list of reasons to eliminate voters from the rolls and a lot of them make sense. Of course the state has an interest in removing voters from the rolls if they die, leave the state or the county where they registered.

However, state law also requires moving sporadic voters to the inactive list. These are voters who don’t cast a ballot in consecutive elections and historically they tend to be Democrats.

Go figure Republican lawmakers want them off the rolls ASAP. 

I must point out, though, that Republicans are relying more and more on unreliable voters, too. Meanwhile, habitually voting suburbanites are switching their preference to the Democrats. If a party is trading high-efficacy voters for low-efficacy voters, then making it harder to cast a ballot is a self-inflicted wound. That, or it’s an opportunity to shout “Voter fraud!” or “Rigged election!”

The county will almost certainly take the money to perform the staff-intensive tasks required by law because that’s how some people operate.

Supervisors will also clean up some old budget policies on the books that have been updated by subsequent action.

The Board of Supervisors through the years approved a bunch of rules related to the budget like base budgeting and retiring secondary sales taxes while raising primary operating taxes. Another policy change would govern how operating transfers were allowed but differentiates between budgeted and non-budgeted transfers.

The new policies are just a chance to clean up the county’s books while still maintaining the spirit of the old rules – at least that’s how the staff is presenting them.

One new policy would alter how the county spends its contingency, allowing the director of risk management to authorize up to $50,000 in spending and OKs the county administrator signing off on $500,000 in unforeseen spending.

I don’t know about this one. On the one hand, it’s a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency option that can save precious time. On the other hand, it usurps the board’s fiduciary authority. Elected leaders have power of the purse, not staff.

Supervisor Matt Heinz will continue his push to spend $159 million in fund balance on affordable housing. Heinz began this push two weeks ago, while County Administrator Jan Lesher pointed out that most of the fiscal year 2023-24 reserve fund has been earmarked for other things. There’s nowhere near that much available.

The proposal is back this week and now Heinz has 14 letters of support for his idea. If two letters is a coincidence and three is a trend, then 14 is a minor groundswell. Will it be enough to get his colleagues on board? We’ll see.

In late September and early October, Westin La Paloma will be holding pyropalloza of sorts up at 3900 E. Sunrise Drive.

The Foothills resort will hold fireworks displays Sept. 23, Sept. 24, Oct. 3, Oct. 4 and Oct. 6.

Forgive me for not going into this deeper. I know Oct. 3 is Mean Girls Day and Boyfriend Day. Are the two related?

How the other half live

The Marana Town Council will vote on new rules meant to tighten up the definition of transitional housing. Under the old policy, transitional housing was defined as a halfway house, sober living facility and homeless shelter.

The new designation sets the parameters more narrowly: “(A) dwelling shared as a primary residence by adult persons with disabilities, as that term is defined under federal law for purposes of the fair housing act, who live together in an environment that may provide self-support or resident staff persons providing care, education, or activities for the residents.”

Soooo … not in my back yard?

Transitional housing is allowed in single-family detached neighborhoods in Marana and the Americans with Disabilities Act offers a host of protections for people with disabilities. These homes may go anywhere more conventional homes were built.

What’s really needed to battle homelessness is homes and Marana has the wide open spaces to provide them. So there’s that. Folks up there aren’t saying “no affordable housing in my neighborhood.” They aren’t yet, anyway.

The council will also vote on whether to give its Magistrate Laine McDonald a four-year term at a salary of $171,200 a year. 

In Santa Cruz County, the Board of Supervisors will vote on a 65-acre rezoning west of Interstate 19 in Tubac.

The rezoning, combined with a general plan amendment, would change the land-use designations of approximately 13.6 acres from General Business to Multi-Family (MF), 13.64 acres of land from General Business to Single-Family Residential, 4.72 acres from General Business to General Rural, and 12.7 acres of land from General Rural to Single-Family Residential.

So basically, it’s turning something akin to a strip mall into a residential housing tract.

There were a handful of public comments on the rezoning with most weighing in against it.

County planners have determined the project meets the intent of the general plan (even though a change in the plan is needed to accommodate the development) and it is compatible with surrounding land uses.

So the staff and Planning and Zoning Commission is recommending approval.

The Sosa-Carrillo House on the Tucson Convention Center campus is one of the few homes saved from urban renewal in the 1970s, when old neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for progress.

Now it is on the verge of a major facelift if it can nail down a grant in the works from the Mellon Foundation.

The Rio Nuevo Multipurpose Facilities District Board voted in August to match the grant. However, the New York City-based foundation now says it wants the district to offer a longer lease to the tenant, the Mexican-American Culture and History Museum.

The board will hold a special meeting Wednesday to discuss its next steps. 

The South Tucson City Council will vote on approval of the South 10th Avenue modernization as part of the current RTA scope of work. The project would improve safety along the road and was approved at the RTA Board meeting on July 27.

The council will also discuss what to do about blighted and dilapidated properties within the city’s 1-square-mile limits.

And finally in a special meeting of the Pima Community College District Governing Board, elected leaders will discuss what to discuss at future meetings.

That’s right. The agenda is limited to scheduling topics for future study sessions.

I mean. OK. Shrug.