The deadline for Oro Valley’s next budget is looming overhead, and the town council is split on funding priorities.
Mayor Joe Winfield and Vice Mayor Melanie Barrett want to see the town retain its own in-house attorney, while council members Bill Rodman, Rhonda Piña and Steve Solomon want the police department to hire more officers.
In Town Manager Mary Jacobs’ recommended budget, $178,000 is included to hire a new full-time attorney to replace the current contracted town attorney, Gary Cohen, who works for the private law firm Mesch Clark Rothschild. The town pays about $25,000 for their services.
At the May 8 council study session, Jacobs said this position—which is the only new full-time employee in the budget—was included at the request of council members who want a more accessible attorney for use during council meetings, executive sessions and other related events.
There are three attorneys who work full-time for the town but focus primarily on prosecution and civil matters.
Solomon, who expressed his disapproval for funding this when the recommended budget was first released in April, said the need for a full-time attorney could go away once the new mayor and council members get “up to speed” with how the town works.
Piña said a contracted attorney minimizes the risk of political influence compared to an in-house attorney. Cohen told her his law firm was never notified of any problems with accessibility or responsiveness.
Mesch Clark Rothschild has provided legal advice to the town council and staff for two years.
“Technically, your town attorney, even though my name is used and I’m the face of it, your town attorney is Mesch Clark Rothschild, the oldest law firm in Tucson, the most established law firm in Tucson, which has approximately 20 lawyers,” Cohen told the council.
Barrett said this is something she was very interested in as soon as she was elected to council, and sees it as a “structural problem.” She said most towns similar in size to Oro Valley have a full-time town attorney, and her suggestion had nothing to do with the performance of the current contracted firm.
Winfield and Barrett say it’s a “best practice” to have one.
“You can’t look at what you’re talking about in a vacuum,” Rodman told the mayor. He said that just because it’s beneficial to have a full-time town attorney doesn’t mean that other priorities don’t equally deserve attention, such as the police department.
In 2008, the Oro Valley Police Department had 102 commissioned officers. Today, they have 100.
Chief Daniel Sharp told the council they’ve been able to make it work because of time management and a strong work ethic among police officers.
He put in a personnel request for eight new officers over two years. This would cost the town about $500,000 but was not included in the recommended budget.
At the meeting, Sharp told the mayor and council that he purposely did not request more officers in past years because he tried to defer the extra expense as long as possible.
“Last year at the budget it was like we could do one more year but then we’re going to start slipping, and actually we’ve started slipping faster in the last few months than I even anticipated,” he said.
Sharp, who will retire in February, said the need for more police officers is heightened now because Oro Valley has grown in size and the police department has to serve a larger population.
Several council members said they weren’t even aware that the police force was understaffed for the past decade.
The ideal ratio of police work is 40 percent reactive, 40 percent proactive and 20 percent administrative. Sharp said because of the lack of officers, OVPD spends 50 percent of their time being reactive, 30 percent being proactive and 20 percent being administrative.
In 2019, OVPD cancelled 440 lower priority calls because there wasn’t an officer available to respond. During the busiest shifts, Sharp said that about 20 percent of calls that come in do not have an officer available.
Piña, Solomon and Rodman expressed that public safety is the town’s top priority and if they need $500,000 to maintain that, then the council should find that money from other areas of the budget as soon as possible.
Pima County Sheriff Mark Napier, who has lived in Oro Valley since 1993, vouched for Chief Sharp’s expertise and supported his request for more officers, saying it’s paramount to maintaining a safe community.
“I could be a resident of anywhere in Pima County, but I choose Oro Valley, in part because of public safety,” Napier told the council during call to the public.
Winfield and Barrett seemed hesitant to get on board.
“I don’t think that it’s a good idea to make decisions under a false sense of urgency,” Barrett said. “But I do think that this is something that we need to consider and take a look at in this budget.”
Winfield said public safety already represents 35 percent of the recommended budget. He said this shows the council’s support for the police department in terms of capital improvements and funding for equipment replacement.
Town staff has been directed to find revenues within the town that could be allocated to the police department instead. They’re expected to come back to the council with funding options in the next week or two.
The Parks and Recreation budget assumes continued operation for all 45 holes of golf. As of April 30, the town has 235 golf members, and staff expects it to increase to 249 by the same date next year. This would equal about 60 to 65 percent of the golf course capacity.
Four years ago, Rob DeMore, Troon Privé Division President, said the golf course’s online rating was in the 60 percent range. It is now at 90 percent. DeMore told the council this feedback reflects the revenue stream, which they expect to reach $1.3 million for non-member play in 2019; a record high. When Troon took over operations of the golf course, non-member revenue was at about $750,000.
He says the non-member players are primarily coming from Oro Valley, Marana and Tucson.
“This is an asset that was highly reliant, continues to be highly reliant, on a member-based income stream,” DeMore said at the study session. “What has occurred as the conditions have improved and there’s been some stability, is continued growth on the revenue side, particularly on the daily fee.”
Oro Valley purchased over 40 pieces of golf course maintenance equipment, as a requirement of the acquisition in 2015. This will be the last year the town has to pay for that. DeMore said they expect to save about $200,000 in the coming years as a result.
The Parks and Rec budget also reflects an increase in minimum wage to $12 and a 2.5 percent annual cost of living pay increase. There are 20 full-time employees that maintain the 45 holes of golf, which sit on 170 irrigated acres of land.
About $1.2 million is budgeted to pay for water costs on the golf course. DeMore said the water pump investment that the town council approved after acquiring the facilties is contributing greatly to reductions in water expenses. They estimate the cost to decrease to about $900,000, partially because of an extended rainy season this year.
The fund balance for the community center is about $250,000 at the end of this fiscal year. Based on this budget, Oro Valley’s CFO Stacey Lemos estimates it will increase by $300,000, which includes paying back $120,000 to the general fund.
DeMore told the council that if the uncertainty of the golf course’s future was alleviated, they could charge more for membership dues and even bring more people in.
Piña said the uncertainty of the golf course’s future could change the positive numbers they’re seeing right now.
“So for me personally, I’d like to see that we can come to a conclusion because the uncertainty has such a magnanimous impact on what’s happened in the community and with the financial side as well,” she said.
The town council is expected to make a final decision about the golf course in September.