Empty Box

The city's open space check-off program has experienced a drought of donations.

Pima County is preparing to ask voters next May to increase property taxes in order to acquire $250 million worth of open space land.

Meanwhile, the city of Tucson can't raise much of anything on a voluntary basis for the same purpose.

In November 2001, the City Council adopted a water bill check-off program to aid in the purchase of vacant property. This donation solicitation replaced an earlier attempt to obtain contributions for the city's campaign matching funds program, an effort that never generated much interest.

Councilman José Ibarra, who pushed the open-space idea, said it was proposed by neighborhood residents from his westside ward. "They thought the city could get some money and be able to buy small vacant parcels," says Ibarra, who was happy to present the concept to the Council.

Before it was adopted, Ibarra believed it could initially generate around $35,000 a year and build toward $50,000 annually. But, as he says now, "Unfortunately, the program hasn't worked out as well as it could have."

For the last fiscal year, only $12,300 was donated--sometimes by people simply rounding off their water bill amounts, at other times providing more sizable contributions. The meager total, obviously, won't go very far in acquiring much open space anywhere in Tucson.

Ibarra blames the city staff for the lackluster performance of the program. "It was like pulling teeth," he says. "They never liked the idea and disagreed with me about publicizing it. They didn't want to do anything (about promoting it), and in the end, like many good ideas, if you don't put emphasis behind something, it never picks up momentum."

Tucson's director of communications, Jay Gonzales, responds: "The direction from the council was to put it on the water bill. There was no direction for resources to be spent to promote the program."

As a result, donated dollars for open space acquisition dribble in monthly to the city. Meanwhile, Dan Cavanagh, director of the Arizona Builders' Alliance, wonders why the council didn't pursue an idea he proposed for raising funds to purchase vacant land around the community.

When Ibarra brought up the water bill program, Cavanagh supported it, and went even further. He suggested using a small property tax increase to raise $1.7 million annually to create an "Local Open Space Preservation Fund." Since the rise in the property tax rate would have to be approved by the voters, Cavanagh pledged that his organization would develop, "a campaign committee and (supply) initial funding to conduct the 'vote yes' campaign."

In a scathing memorandum, however, City Manager James Keene raised numerous questions about the proposed property tax funding mechanism, and the council did nothing about the idea. Despite that, Cavanagh still thinks it would have been appropriate.

"We thought it would be a nice program inside the city limits," Cavanagh says for his organization. "Desert land which is already surrounded by development could have been bought for neighborhood parks. There are vacant parcels (in the city) which are real treasures, and we thought, 'get 'em now.'"

That will be impossible under the city of Tucson's water bill effort, but could it happen with money provided by the proposed Pima County open space bond program? Probably not, since that quarter of a billion bucks in higher property taxes will be earmarked mostly to satisfy the federal requirements of the Endangered Species Act. Thus, those funds will be used to acquire large parcels of land on the fringes of the urban area.

But even if there is some county bond money available for inside the city, given the current relationship between the council and Board of Supervisors, cooperation doesn't seem likely. When the council discussed the county open space program a few weeks ago, Ibarra says, "Some of my colleagues would rather throw punches (at Pima County) and act like a rabid, threatening dog, but we'll get more through dialogue with them."

The councilman would like to see the city develop an environmentally important prioritized list of open space parcels to present to the county for inclusion on the May ballot. But he doesn't think that is going to happen. "The city bureaucracy will look at what is politically good for everybody," Ibarra says, "but some wards don't have significant pieces of open space in them."

Thus, Ibarra believes the city will request that open space land be preserved based on political considerations, not what is most environmentally sensitive. Because of that, he predicts if the list is ignored by Pima County, the majority of the council will then ask city voters to reject the May bond program.

Would that step have any real political impact? Longtime local environmentalist Carolyn Campbell, who is supporting the county's open space bond program, doesn't think so.

"The Council endorsed the transportation sales tax last year, and that didn't help," she points out. "So I don't think their opposition will hurt the county bonds, but make the council look kind of childish instead."

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