The Move To Sell Taxpayers On A New Downtown Government Palace Encounters The Doldrums Of Disinterest.
By Dave Devine
THE ODDLY NAME for the Proposed 1998-2003 Basic City Services Action Plan" was scheduled to meet last week to discuss City Manager Luis Gutierrez's proposal to build a new City Hall next to downtown's main library. But a quorum didn't show, so the meeting was canceled.
Not quite what the City Council had in mind on August 17, when they talked about the issue. At that time they decided to form the committee and asked that it report back in 90 days and have a final recommendation within 180. Mayor George Miller said that he wanted "to involve many, many people in this community--as many as want to get involved" in commenting on the proposal.
Miller thought two public meetings on the proposed new City Hall should be held in each of the city's six wards before the issue came back to the Council. Ward Six Councilman Fred Ronstadt suggested that ward open houses, mall displays, the city's Channel 12 cable TV propaganda arm, and other methods be used to publicize the proposal. He wanted all citizens to have a chance to study the matter and voice their opinions.
Since that August meeting, the 18-member committee has been appointed to review Gutierrez's suggestion. According to the group's chair, former city councilman Brent Davis, their role is to "verify and validate the information provided by the City Manager and to make a recommendation to the Council." Davis doubts the committee will be unanimous in its position about whether to build a new City Hall, where it should go, or the other issues before it.
So far the committee has met twice and established four subcommittees to look at Tucson's supposed need for new facilities, and the financing, architecture, and technology issues involved with that possibility. Eventually it will need to coordinate its efforts with several other city groups involved with downtown issues.
One decision the committee has made already, however, is to adopt a timeline for completing its tasks. The group expects to return to the City Council with a recommendation on December 14.
Originally three open houses were expected to be held before then to allow for public comment. That isn't exactly the level of citizen participation Miller and Ronstadt talked about in August. But with the delay caused by the recently canceled meeting, even three public meetings are unlikely to occur before the December deadline.
Meanwhile, the members of the Tucson Police Officers Association are also encouraging the public to get involved with the process. In large newspaper ads that cost almost $2,000, a few weeks ago, the TPOA asked, "Do you want your money spent on PUBLIC SAFETY OR PUBLIC BUILDINGS???"
The Association says City Manager Gutierrez claimed for months that the municipal government didn't have enough money to pay police officers more. But then he suddenly came up with $75 million for new buildings. They believe the public might take a different view on how that money should be spent.
The TPOA encouraged people to call the City Council's citizen-comment line to express their opinions. In response to the ad, 37 people did call, and by a six-to-one margin opposed the City Hall proposal.
One caller commented, "I agree that we do need a new City Hall. A lot of money being put out to cover up things in the Police Department that I think are a waste of money. The money would be better used for City Hall." But most agreed with a caller who said, "In regards to the $75 million for the new City Hall, I'd like to see it spent for additional police officers, paramedics, fire and for programs such as neighborhood patrol programs. I don't believe we need a new City Hall."
But prioritizing community needs isn't an issue the newly formed committee will be discussing, because the majority of the City Council didn't think it appropriate. Besides, according to vice-chair Kurt Cooper, "The choice between police (salaries) and a new City Hall is a false dichotomy." He believes, despite several published reports to the contrary, that funds for the new building and the city's operational expenses would come out of different budgets.
Cooper also wonders whether the revenue streams needed to pay for a new building are stable enough to finance operational expenditures.
City Councilman Steve Leal has an opposing question. He asks if the city can afford to take $7 to $8 million a year out of its operational budget for the next two decades to pay for a new City Hall.
Leal believes that beginning next year, police officers and fire fighters may get higher raises than other city employees. He also sees a slowdown in the national and state economies within a few years. Combined with the city's vulnerability to sales tax fluctuations, a down-turn could trigger a serious financial dilemma, forcing employee lay-offs and make cuts in services.
That, he says, is all the more reason to be prudent now. He suggests the city pursue buying an existing downtown building, like the Bank of America tower. In Leal's opinion, not only could the current tenants of the building help finance some of the mortgage through their rent payments, but the open space next to the library would be saved.
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