The City Manager Wants To Build A Monument-But Why?
By Jim Nintzel
FOR SEVERAL MONTHS, Tucson City Manager Luis Gutierrez has been working on a hush-hush development project with some top city staffers. Last week, in a slide show that emphasized many problems with the existing City Hall, he finally unveiled his vision of a towering new municipal headquarters.
While some elements of the pitch had leaked to The Weekly in the days leading up to the meeting, Gutierrez had kept the details tightly under wraps.
"It's been so secret I thought they might be planning to build it underground--kind of an X-Files thing," says Ward 1 Councilman José Ibarra.
But the Plaza de Luis, as Ibarra calls to the new City Hall project, would actually rise 12 stories into the downtown skyline, a "state-of-the-art" public facility which would open for business in April 2001.
The $57-million skyscraper is part of a $75-million development package which also includes a new midtown police station and Council office (Price tag: $9 million). The existing City Hall would be rehabilitated for additional office space, possibly for the Transportation and Parks & Rec departments, for an additional $7.5 million; and Parks & Rec's current headquarters in Reid Park would be demolished to make room for zoo expansion, more playing fields or additional parking space--at $1.5 million--for Hi Corbett Field.
Following the presentation, Ward 6 Councilman Fred Ronstadt made a motion to proceed with Gutierrez's recommendation to begin the planning process for the development. Although Mayor George Miller and Council members Shirley Scott and Janet Marcus appeared to be leaning toward supporting the project, the Council instead voted to hold a public meeting on Monday, August 17, before moving forward.
This week, Ronstadt's support for the project began to wither. "I've sort of soured on it," he says.
Like some of his colleagues on the Council, Ronstadt now says he has some questions about the project that weren't answered by the glossy, 100-page notebook on the project, which, while describing the deal as a "win-win-win" for bureaucrats and taxpayers, neglects to explain how the deal is actually going to work. Instead, it's filled with statistics, photos and captions--what one high-level staffer in the City Manager's Office describes as "soft stuff. The Council likes soft stuff."
Councilman Steve Leal says he prefers hard data. Although he tentatively supports the midtown development, Leal is skeptical of the new City Hall and says he needs to see "real analysis. Show us the numbers."
A week after the plan's debut, however, details remain sketchy. Staffers in the City Manager's Office say the comic book they gave Council members is the closest they've gotten to a summary of the plan, although they hope to send a more in-depth review of the project to Gutierrez this week, which he'll forward to the Council members early next week--which means the Council gets about a week to review the project before they vote on it following a one-hour public meeting on August 17.
"There's a lot of holes in this," complains Councilman Jerry Anderson. "I'm really frustrated at the whole way this has been presented to us with such a lack of information."
Leal is more blunt, griping there's been an effort to keep information "from everybody--us, you, the people."
CITY FINANCE DIRECTOR Kay Gray has the real numbers--but, like the City Manager's Office, she has no reports, no memos and no public records she's willing to share with the press. She's happy to discuss the broad elements of the plan, however.
For starters, the real cost is still unknown. The city will spend $75 million on the various developments, but it only has $6 million available as a down-payment, so to speak. That $6 million, previously kept as debt reserve on the city's bonds, is available because the city refinanced the bond debt. Gray says these dollars can only be used for capital projects.
The city will need to borrow the remaining $69 million for the project, so interest payments on the so-called "certificates of participation" will drive up the real cost. Gray estimates the project will be paid off over 20 years, and a "rough rule of thumb" to estimate the cost is to double the amount you plan to borrow. So the eventual cost of the project could run as high as $144 million.
These repayment details are glossed over in the briefing book given to Council members and the press, which lists five revenue sources without identifying how much will come from each one.
Gray was more forthcoming about details in an interview earlier this week, although she declined to release some of her figures. According to Gray:
Asked if she's preparing a more in-depth report for Council review, Gray says; "I haven't talked to the City Manager, except briefly. We were asked questions at the presentation and we're going back on August 17 with answers to those questions, but I have not talked to the Manager about how he wants to approach this piece of that. We've been kind of busy doing some other things."
AT LEAST THREE Council members would feel a little better about the proposal if some of these details could be spelled out to them. Anderson had scheduled a meeting with Gray this week to learn more about the financial plan.
Leal complains, "When we met to talk about it the other day, I thought it was just the beginning--not that there was a bow wrapped around it and here it is."
Ibarra has similar concerns. "I didn't appreciate the fast-track," he says, arguing that the project "is not the highest priority we need to be addressing."
Anderson, who had an office in the City Hall Annex when he worked in the city's annexation division, is more sympathetic to the needs of downtown city workers, but he's still leery about building a new City Hall.
"I realize there's a need to improve City Hall, and certainly the Annex is not only an unhealthy building to work in, but it's woefully inadequate," Anderson says. "Something needs to be done to both facilities. But my concern is that the Manager has put together a $75 million package and doesn't want to go to the voters for their approval."
Ibarra thinks the need for a new City Hall is a matter of perspective. "It depends on whether you work there," Ibarra says. "If you're George Miller, then you really need to replace it. If you're José Ibarra and you're at the westside Council office, it's not too bad."
Ibarra supports using capital construction funds to build recreational centers on the city's northwest and east sides to help curb juvenile crime. He thinks the City Hall proposal should go to the ballot.
"I would feel more comfortable if we did it through a bond package," says Ibarra. "That way, the voters would have a chance to vote for it."
With voter approval, Anderson says, "We can go together knowing that we're being supported by our community--that despite all the other needs we have throughout Tucson, whether it be parks or service centers or safe neighborhoods or youth programs or money for the cops, this is the priority the voters will support."
Leal thinks city staff needs to analyze the cost of operations and maintenance for the new City Hall. He thinks the city might be better off leasing additional office space and examining the possibility of acquiring the federal court facilities at Broadway and Scott Avenue.
Leal says city-county consolidation could also reduce the need for additional office space, as could telecommuting. "How many city employees could we keep at home--get 'em off the roads and reduce air pollution?" Leal asks.
Ronstadt says he'll have a lot of questions at the August 17 meeting. He believes the new City Hall would help downtown revitilization, but, "On the other hand, there are a lot of significant unmet needs in the community," Ronstadt says. "To a degree, I got caught up in the whole thing. I think it's a nice vision for the future of the community and it's going to enhance the ability to provide services for people who access city government directly. But the more the details are being fleshed out, it's not turning out to be so grand."
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