A New City Hall, Or Better-Paid Cops?-Council Members May Soon Reveal Their Priorities.
By Dave Devine
IT SEEMED LIKE such a simple, straightforward proposal only a few weeks ago: Build a new City Hall and help revitalize downtown. Construct other needed municipal facilities at the same time--and do it all without raising taxes. Sounded like a winning idea.
But then the critics got hold of the proposal, a pet project of Tucson City Manager Luis Guiterrez.
Some critics argued the money would be better spent on more pressing problems. Others complained that Stone Avenue at Pennington doesn't need to be revitalized, while the east side of downtown does. And lately there have even been rumblings of a citizen's initiative to require a public vote on the whole issue.
Things were so much easier in late 1961, when the basement and first floor of the current City Hall were dedicated. Using voter-approved bonds, the $625,000 project had some cost overruns, but they were eventually resolved. Six years later, again funded by voter-approved bond money, the structure's $1.9 million, nine-story tower was completed after more cost overruns were settled.
This year, critics of Guiterrez' New City Hall proposal have raised the question, why doesn't the city go to the voters again? Voters could be asked to approve an increase in property tax rates to pay for general obligation bonds to finance the construction. This is the typical way local governments finance capital projects.
The simple answer is that the $75 million price tag on the new City Hall proposal is far too expensive for the standard financing method. Arizona's Constitution places a cap on the amount of general obligation bonds a city can sell. Tucson is now about $25 million under that limit.
According to Kay Gray, the city's finance director, there may be $60 million available by the time of a possible bond election in the year 2000. But, she says, almost all of that money will be required to meet the cost of mandated programs like environmental cleanup, and to provide more police and fire-fighting services.
So instead of using general-obligation bond money, city officials say they want to cover construction costs with funds which can be used for any municipal purpose. In other words, the City Council's decision on the proposal will show where their priorities are.
Do they want to hire additional cops or pay the current ones more money instead of constructing a new City Hall? They could also subsidize affordable housing, build parks, fund social programs, put more buses on the street, or even lower taxes. The money needed to finance this project could actually be used to reduce, or even eliminate, the city's primary property tax.
Traditionally the city has earmarked a chunk of general funds to pay off debt resulting from capital projects--constructing the addition to the Convention Center, building a new northside police substation, and providing a headquarters for the city's Information Technology Department. But the Council doesn't have to continue that tradition. It can use most of the money any way it wants.
Critics have raised other concerns about the new City Hall proposal. They've pointed out that parking is a potential problem. Spaces are always at a premium downtown, and because the proposal would bring Parks & Recreation Department employees downtown, they warn, the parking situation will grow even worse. Plus, easy public access to Parks & Rec personnel, a real advantage of the department's current site in Reid Park, will be diminished.
Precisely where a new City Hall should go is another contentious issue. Anne Lawrence, who lives in downtown's Armory Park neighborhood, thinks the new building should be used to encourage that area's revitalization. Stone Avenue near the Main Library doesn't need help, she says, but downtown's outlying eastside neighborhoods do.
Lawrence says this approach was the direction taken by the city's 1994 Downtown Strategic Plan. She also argues that existing infrastructure available on the library site should be used to attract a private investor to build there.
Plus, the revitalization benefits of this proposal are being blown way out of proportion. Where the new City Hall goes, if it is built, won't make or break downtown Tucson in the long run.
It promises to be a lively discussion when the City Council meets on Monday to hold a public hearing on the proposal. Some Council members have also been intensley critical of the idea, despite some strong support from city staffers.
The Council will be faced with a decision about whether to continue its historical level of spending on capital projects or redirect the money to other needs. At the same time it will have to consider the possibility of placing the item before the voters this November as an advisory-only question.
All in all, it should make for a interesting evening.
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