Open Space Case

Will county voters be asked to approve a $250 million bond for preservation this November?

Even while supervisors are trying to decipher Pima County's first-ever billion-dollar budget, they're getting little green postcards in the mail encouraging them to ask voters to hand over even more tax dollars.

A local group, Friends of the Sonoran Desert, has launched a grassroots effort to lobby the board of supervisors to ask voters to approve an open-space bond this November. While details remain to be fleshed out, the proposal would allow the county to borrow $250 million to purchase land for preservation.

A successful bond election could provide an early boost to the county's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, says Carolyn Campbell, who has represented a coalition of local environmental groups throughout the planning process.

"It would jumpstart the program to buy land up front," says Campbell, providing a local match to possible federal dollars.

The conservation plan's steering committee is expected to soon issue recommendations to the county, according to Campbell. County officials are still awaiting a long-delayed economic analysis of the plan.

Bond proponents such as Luther Propst of the Sonoran Institute are encouraged by the fact that other communities in Arizona, California and Colorado have recently passed measures designed to protect open space, despite national economic woes.

One major question remains: Will there be organized opposition to a bond proposal? Propst and Campbell hope that they can convince the development community to support the proposal--or at least sit out the fight--because having public dollars to help fund the conservation plan will put less of a burden on builders.

A frequent county critic with ties to the homebuilding industry says he doesn't know if there will be organized opposition to the ballot proposal.

"Nobody's talking about organized opposition because very few people know that this train is rolling down the tracks," says Steve Emerine, a former county assessor and journalist.

Emerine takes issue with the argument that a bond program wouldn't raise taxes because the bonds could be sold as others are retired. "If you didn't issue new bonds, maybe our total tax rate could drop to where its only the second-highest in the state," he says.

With the county budget climbing every year, Emerine complains that "there are an awful lot of needs in this county that we don't seem to have money enough to meet. I can't believe that right-thinking Pima County residents are going say, 'Yeah, boy, what we need to do is take $250 million of land off the tax rolls so I can pay more.'"

On the county's 11th floor, the supervisors have varying degrees of enthusiasm for the proposal. District 5's Richard Elias, a Democrat, wholeheartedly embraces the idea, while Sharon Bronson, a Democrat from District 3, is "cautiously optimistic" the county can hold a November election on the issue. The third Democrat, Dan Eckstrom, is keeping his options open; he's been supportive of such questions in the past, but he'll wait until he sees a proposal before he makes up his mind.

"I don't shoot until I see the whites of their eyes," he says.

Republicans on the board remain skittish. District 1 Supervisor Ann Day supports the idea of an open space bond, but frets that a November election may be premature.

"Right now, I think it's a high-risk gamble to put something on the ballot in November," says Day. "Either you'll win and you win big, or you lose and you lose big."

District 4 Supervisor Ray Carroll says the county's reputation, tarred from accusations of graft and cronyism regarding the 1997 road bond program, could sink the proposal. "Right now, I don't think the timing is right," he says.

"I'm always in favor of letting these types of things go to a vote of the people," says Carroll. "But am I going to work my butt off to get something passed that I don't think is timed correctly and that doesn't have unanimous support of the board? No, I won't."

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