Court Bond

A bond question that's getting little publicity deserves closer inspection by voters

A couple of questionable governmental real-estate transactions from the 1980s provide a dubious backdrop for a little-publicized item on the May 18 Pima County bond election ballot. Combined with a perceived continuation of the county's practice to promise more than they can deliver with bond funds, this issue deserves close scrutiny by the voters.

Bond question No. 3 asks approval to spend $183.5 million of secondary property tax revenue, one-half of which would go to a regional public safety communication system. Another $76 million of the total is slated for construction of a new downtown complex to serve both the county's justice court and the city of Tucson's municipal court.

Eighteen years ago, in a sweetheart political deal, the city purchased an existing six-story office building at 103 E. Alameda St. Exceeding its own cost estimate by almost 30 percent, the city then spent $7.6 million converting it into a courthouse. Currently, it contains nine courtrooms, two hearing rooms, an extensive records section, the offices of the city's prosecutors and several other functions.

Because the structure was originally built as a multi-story parking garage in the 1960s, some people consider it a white elephant. Its layout actually requires the courtrooms and offices to be squeezed in around the massive concrete columns that hold the building up.

That isn't the only problem: The configuration of the complex means the public and prisoners can't be separated, presenting security problems.

"The building wasn't properly designed as a municipal court," insists presiding magistrate Tony Riojas, "and has probably outlived its useful life." Citing the current need to replace the elevators and address problems with the attached parking structure, Riojas adds that the courthouse is in poor condition and has high maintenance costs.

Pima County also has a lot of problems with its consolidated justice court. Seven courtrooms and a customer-service counter are now jammed together on the second floor of the historic courthouse on Church Avenue, while other associated court facilities are scattered nearby.

"That space (in the old courthouse) isn't meeting the needs of the court at all," says Jim Barry of the County Administrator's office. "It's overcrowded and inadequate in terms of safety because prisoners, jurors and the public are all together."

To correct these problems, voters are being asked to approve the construction of a new combination courthouse in a new building that may have two high-rise towers. To be located downtown on the southeast corner of Stone and Toole avenues, the proposed complex would cover a block-and-a-half of property and contain 38 courtrooms, 337,000 square feet of floor area and a 1,500-space parking garage which would be paid for separately through parking fees.

While Pima County has recently purchased a surface parking lot on the south end of this site, additional acquisitions will be required. These include the Coconuts nightclub at the corner of Stone and Toole and a state-owned building immediately south of it.

This latter structure has a suspicious real estate history of its own. Once the offices of the politically powerful DeConcini law firm, the state purchased it in 1987 for $1.6 million as part of its Aviation Parkway project. Interestingly, the building was never in the path of the roadway. Despite that, shortly after selling the property, the lawyers took the money and announced they were building a new office at the corner of Broadway and Tucson boulevards.

If ballot question No. 3 is approved, these parcels will have to be acquired and a new structure designed and built, a process Barry estimates could take up to eight years to complete.

While it may be time-consuming, the project may also lack sufficient financing. Both Barry and Riojas admit the municipal court allocation is $4 million less than was requested by City Hall. But facing too many funding needs and too few dollars, Pima County's Bond Advisory Committee set the final figure at $41 million for the city side of the new complex.

"We encouraged governmental entities to identify other sources of capital to finish out projects," says Larry Hecker, chairman of the committee. In the city's case, the group thought the existing municipal court building could be sold for $4 million, but Hecker states this figure was just a rough guesstimate.

To close this funding gap, the project could be scaled back somewhat, or more money spent could be spent on the city of Tucson portion of the complex. Skeptics, though, might contend this is the same old "over-sell and under-deliver" approach which has been used by Pima County in the past on bond issues ranging from transportation to open space acquisition.

Labeling the court project "underfunded," Tucson Councilman Fred Ronstadt urged those attending a recent meeting on the city's bleak financial picture to oppose this and the other May bond measures. He believes a lower property-tax rate will be more beneficial in attracting new jobs to the community than the projects which the bonds would implement.

Meanwhile, discussions are still ongoing about how the $4 million shortfall would be covered. At the same time, city officials are contemplating what will eventually become of its current court if the bonds are approved. Riojas says he has heard everything from demolition to conversion back to office uses, at least one of which may be an appropriate next step for the white elephant of Alameda Street.

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