The Bright Stuff

A new nonprofit wants change at the county—and is willing to spend dollars to see it happen

Michael Farley is unhappy with Pima County's leadership—and he plans to do something about it.

Farley has a reason to be upset with the county. He owns vacant land at the intersection of Kolb and Valencia roads and had been planning on developing a shopping center that could include a Walmart, Best Buy and other retailers.

But the county needs to improve the overburdened intersection—and county leaders recently decided that they would prefer to develop a "parkway-at-grade intersection," which would eliminate the need for drivers to stop at the intersection by allowing Valencia Road to pass underneath Kolb Road. The new design would put auxiliary roads through the property on which Farley had hoped to build his power center.

With the new intersection design, Farley believes the county has broken its promises to him.

"I just got fed up with it," Farley says. "Just plain-old fed up, so I decided to do something about it, and I'm going to see if I can change the business atmosphere in Pima County, and especially the Board of Supervisors, to make it more business-friendly."

Farley has formed Arizonans for a Brighter Future, a 501(c)(6) nonprofit business league that can be active in political campaigning.

Nonprofits such as Arizonans for a Brighter Future have become a larger force in politics in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The nonprofits can accept unlimited contributions from corporations andunions, and do not have to reveal the identities of their financial backers.

Similar groups—such as Karl Rove's Crossroads GPS, 60 Plus and Americans for Prosperity—had been responsible for roughly 90 percent of the total dollars spent on the 2012 presidential race outside of the GOP primary, according to an April analysis by The Washington Post that showed the groups had spent $28.5 million.

The question of whether the groups should disclose their donors has been an issue both in Congress and the courts. The Federal Election Commission last week issued a new ruling requiring more disclosure under certain circumstances, but how that will affect both national and local races remains to be seen.

Farley told the Tucson Weekly that he has no intention of revealing the names of contributors to Arizonans for a Brighter Future.

Pima County elections have seen relatively little activity from such nonprofits, but Farley wants to have an impact as voters decide who will be sitting on the Pima County Board of Supervisors.

The Weekly reported on Arizonans for a Brighter Future two weeks ago ("Whose Bright Idea?," July 19). At the time, Deb Weisel, of Tagline Media, who was handling the group's website, said that the backers of the group wanted to "keep their identities under wraps" because of fears of political retribution. But documents from the Delaware Division of Corporations showed that Farley was the authorized agent for Arizonans for a Brighter Future—and after the Weekly contacted him, he agreed to an interview.

The Weekly's reporting on Arizonans for a Brighter Future questioned the group's claim that $345 million in transportation spending was "unaccounted for" in the county budget. County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says the money wasn't unaccounted for; it went to pay for staff and other expenses related to running the county's Department of Transportation.

Farley says that the county's budget is so convoluted that it's not apparent what the county has been doing with its Highway User Revenue Funds, which come from the state. However, he concedes that the dollars probably can be accounted for.

"Is the money unaccounted for?" Farley says. "Nah, it's probably in there."

But Farley complains that the county is spending too much of its HURF funds on a "bloated bureaucracy" rather than on pothole repairs, which has resulted in a street system in desperate need of improvement.

Huckelberry says that Pima County is no different from other Arizona jurisdictions in its use of HURF funds to pay for staff.

"Contrary to his opinion, every transportation agency in the state—local, county or state—pays for their employees who operate in its transportation department with HURF revenues," Huckelberry says. "The state of Arizona does it. All the counties do it. All the cities and towns do it."

Arizonans for a Brighter Future appears to be shifting its focus to the county's bond debt. A TV ad that went up on local stations KOLD Channel 13 and KGUN Channel 9 focuses on the possibility that the debt might drive the county into bankruptcy.

The initial ad buy was relatively small, according to receipts from the TV stations that show the group spent roughly $4,100 to air the spot over the next week.

But transportation issues are at the heart of Farley's personal dispute with Pima County. Farley has been working with the county to plan the future of the Valencia and Kolb intersection since 2008, according to a timeline prepared by county officials.

While the county did examine a plan to create a new alignment of Valencia Road to the south, which would have benefitted Farley's development plans, transportation officials last year began a different plan that would create a "parkway-at-grade intersection."

Huckelberry maintains that the new plan for the intersection would cost $16 million (including the cost of design, acquisition of right of way, and administrative fees), while the alternative of realigning Valencia Road to the south that Farley prefers would cost $22 million. The county's preferred option will also result in better traffic flow, according to county estimates.

Farley argues that the county has slanted the numbers in its direction.

He had recently reached out to the city of Tucson to see if it would entertain the idea of annexing his property so the county would no longer be involved, but he put those plans on hold because of his political activity with Arizonans for a Brighter Future.

Farley maintains that the issue of county leadership is larger than his own fight over the future of his property.

"I don't think that's really the issue here, unless you're trying to figure out some way to make me look bad as a disgruntled guy," Farley says. "I am one of hundreds of different developers in this community who have had a similar experience with Pima County. It takes an inordinate amount of time to get anything processed down there. They're just not interested in having new businesses come to this community. They claim that they are. They claim that they're developer-friendly. But they're not."

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