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Wrong time for new cars

Photo
Kendrick Wilson
By Kendrick Wilson
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday December 10, 2002

Does your employer provide you with a $24,000 car to get to and from work? If you were Mayor Bob Walkup and your employers were Tucson taxpayers, you would have to answer, "Yes."

According to the Arizona Daily Star, Walkup received a new Toyota Prius, one of the new "hybrid" gas/electric cars on Monday, which cost taxpayers $24,672. His optional navigation system cost $1,900, and his CD player cost taxpayers $335.

Republican City Councilwoman Kathleen Dunbar has requested a Prius with the same options and is expected to receive hers within six weeks.

The arguments for giving the mayor and city council members new cars, especially hybrid cars, make sense at first glance. I've never seen an environmental benefit I didn't like, and the Toyota Prius gets a remarkable 50 miles to the gallon.

Republican City Councilman Fred Ronstadt, who received his new Prius in December of last year, said, "It's important for government leaders to set an example."

Indeed, it is important for government leaders to set an example. If the city budget were overflowing in surplus, this would be an excellent move. But the city budget is in the red, and buying new cars even if they may be more environmentally friendly sets the example that it's OK to buy new cars when you can't pay the bills you already have.

If Walkup, Dunbar and Ronstadt are committed to improving our air quality and want to help the environment, they should be applauded. Perhaps they could set an example in ways that don't cost taxpayers more money. Why not commit to taking the bus to council meetings and public events like former City Councilwoman Molly McKasson once did? Most of the Sun Tran buses run on clean-burning natural gas, and pollute even less than a brand new Prius. If they're committed to using public transportation, they might think twice before voting to cut it again.

If the bus isn't their thing, why not bicycle to events and council meetings? The mayor bicycling to council meetings would set a far more outstanding example than buying a new car with taxpayer dollars. If the mayor were to brave the areas of Campbell Avenue where there is no bike lane and show that he is committed to keeping our air clean bicycling pollutes the least of any method of transportation, including the bus he would truly reinforce the vision of Tucson as a "bicycle-friendly community."

In a time when city employees will undoubtedly be laid off to balance the city's budget, the mayor and council members should not be getting expensive new cars, no matter what excuse is attached to it.

The Star pointed out that with the money spent on Walkup and Dunbar's cars alone, the city could provide free registration in the KidCo after-school program for 2,467 children whose parents work during the day, buy 2,000 new library books or keep city swimming pools open a week-and-a-half longer each summer.

These are tough times, and the mayor and council have made it clear that our community must sacrifice and suffer tighter city budgets. The decisions they must make will not be easy, and many are sure to be heart wrenching.

Nonetheless, a fair budget must be reached, where no single group bears all the costs of balancing the budget. Even the mayor and council members must sacrifice.

If budget constraints are forcing the city to eliminate jobs, cut youth programs and reduce infrastructure improvements, then the city can no longer afford to subsidize development in the suburbs by not charging impact fees on new growth. New roads, water lines, parks and fire and police stations in new growth areas can no longer be paid for without some contribution indeed, some sacrifice from the developers who build up the new areas.

The fact that we do not charge a gasoline tax must also change. A half-cent gasoline tax would do more than Walkup and Dunbar's cars could ever hope to do for our air quality.

The idea of buying new cars for the mayor and Dunbar, especially hybrid cars that get good gas mileage and reduce pollution, is not inherently bad. The idea of flagrant spending by our elected leaders at a time when public programs are being cut right and left is inherently bad.

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