The Skinny

COMPANY TOWN: Company towns are an Arizona tradition. Back in the day in places such as Bisbee and San Manuel, mining companies owned most of the land and most of the politicians.

Well, that ain't over. Check out Oro Valley and a Maricopa development outfit known as Vistoso Partners.

Vistoso owns great tracts of vacant land inside the corporate limits, but the company pays just token property taxes because a quirk in Arizona law allows them to run a few cows on that land and claim an agricultural tax exemption, even though the land has been rezoned for thousands of homes and major commercial uses. The Town of Oro Valley could ban the cows and allow the hard-pressed Amphi School District and Pima County to collect something to pay for all the growth Vistoso Partners has profited from over the years. But the five stooges that usually make up the Oro Valley Town Council at any given time are--and have been--too craven to dare.

And whatever deals are cut on rezonings are regularly modified at basically the will of the developer, as we are currently seeing with Honeybee Canyon, one of the last remaining high-class riparian areas in the Oro Valley area. Back in 1997, the previous property owners, an outfit called ITC, asked the Pima County Board of Supervisors to rezone the property for luxury homes on ridges above the canyon. When the supes shot the rezoning down, ITC asked Oro Valley to annex the property, with the understanding they would get the zoning they wanted.

Honeybee Canyon's defenders gathered enough signatures to put the decision to a public vote, so ITC backed off and sold most of the land to Vistoso Partners. Vistoso bided its time until recently, when it began the push to amend Oro Valley's plan to allow higher densities and a smaller buffer, which would put stately mansions on the ridges above Honeybee Canyon. Vistoso is offering to trade OV a couple of acres to use for reservoirs that would supply water at OV's expense to homes and schools that now need it because of Vistoso's new construction.

In trade for the 1.6 acres, Vistoso wants another 116 luxury homes and 88 condos. Wow, what a deal for the taxpayer! Gee, don't you wish the marks on the OV Town Council would come and play in your poker game?

And there's no surprise that they've got three votes. They actually took the council to dinner in groups of two to avoid breaking the Open Meetings Law when they gave them their instructions--er, information. In fact, the only real surprise is that Councilmember Fran LaSala is objecting to the process and Mayor Paul Loomis (normally politically scrotumless) actually joined him.

Which means Vistoso Partners will carry it with three votes. Councilman Dick Johnson, who's never met a bulldozer he didn't love or a riparian area he gave a rat's ass about, has already announced his support, as has former police chief and now Councilman Werner Wolff. Wolff built a career in law enforcement and now one in politics by doing exactly as instructed. He'd have been a real kick at the Nuremberg trials.

That leaves Oro Valley's newest political face, Councilman Bart Rochman, a retired pol from Illinois who served many years on their equivalent of our Board of Supes. Yeah, bet on it. These are the kind of jerk-offs who actually aspire to be like Scottsdale.

The old-style company towns were actually in some ways a better deal for the inhabitants. The mining companies usually provided some basic services like a hospital, they made most of their moves out in public so everybody knew who owned what, and there was a union that worked to keep them honest.

None of that happens in Caddyshack. They just keep pretending that their game is on the level.

WHERE'S NORTON? Pima County government is a sewer. The member of a previous Board of Supervisors who used to say that, Republican Greg Lunn, was a smart college drop-out who was a quick study with zero tolerance for the day-to-day grind that is the job of supervisor. He had no stomach for it. That is why he was a much better player in the state Legislature before coming back to sit on the board from 1989 through 1992. The Skinny has previously noted Lunn's disdain for long hours in the shop.

Nonetheless Lunn's characterization of county bids and the award of millions of dollars of county contracts was not off. It is why hardened county officials nicknamed Lunn "Ed Norton," not after the popular young actor (American History X, Rounders) but after the New York sewer worker who was Ralph Kramden's buddy on The Honeymooners.

Lunn, now a legislative and Indian tribe lobbyist, would have been delighted by the Board of Supervisors' 4-1 vote last week to award $3.8 million to Tetra Tech Inc., a Pasadena, Calif. engineering company. Tetra Tech, which last year swallowed up the Phoenix and Tucson engineering company Collins-Piña, will be paid to check out the county's 59,000 sewer manholes. That's $64.41 per manhole. Ray Carroll, a Republican, dissented.

Data collected, according to the paperwork the board was given to justify the contract, will "better the county's ability to locate, and vehicularly access the public system's 59,000 manholes."

This seems like a volunteer job the Neighborhood Coalition of Greater Tucson could do. One, two, three, four --

But alas, Raul Piña, the local manager of Collins-Piña and now the political point man for Tetra Tech, bagged another one. Piña has lavished campaign contributions on supervisors for years, particularly for his friend and supporter Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat in his fourth term. Piña regularly has fundraisers for Grijalva and Grijalva's campaign finance statements reveal not only Piña's largesse but that of a host of other Collins-Piña and now Tetra Tech big shots.

Piña beat out Stantec Consulting, a Phoenix-based engineering firm that can hardly complain. Its people know full well the brazen political paybacks in Pima County. Stantec, locally, was once Cella-Barr & Associates, a firm that also threw a ton of political contributions around in the last 25 years.

How Collins-Piña and several other firms landed lucrative county road engineering contracts in the last seven years is the subject of investigations by the FBI and another agency. Allegations by Brooks Keenan, the director of Transportation and Flood Control, claim that Grijalva and fellow Democrat Dan Eckstrom pressured County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to scrap the choices made by a selection panel and instead give them to Collin-Piña and other politically connected and minority firms.

Huckelberry has denied any wrongdoing and has also given detailed explanations why the panels' recommendations were not followed.

Hours after the manhole cover vote, Huckelberry was in a sit-down with Tucson's Don, legendary land speculator Donald R. Diamond, who called to discuss Huckelberry's Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. Bruce Babbitt, who until mid-January was Secretary of the Interior, joined at Diamond's request. Grijalva "wandered" by and promptly ratted out the ménage à trois to his buddy at the Daily Star, Joe Burchell.

Huckelberry was busy with another sit-down later in the week on Canoa Ranch. Fairfield's David Williamson and Williamson's planner for the Canoa ranch, Frank Thomson, and lawyer Dennis Rosen joined Huckelberry and county legal beagles Katharina Richter and Tom Burke. Out of this meeting came a sharp reduction in the price of Canoa. Price for preservation has dropped from $15 million to $6.6, but there are no longer the site fees and taxes that would have enabled this to pay for itself once Fairfield developed its remaining acres. With only $2 million for Canoa in the open-space bonds approved by voters in 1997, the remaining $4.6 million would have to come from the general fund.

Huckelberry is talking about using part of the county's supposed budget surplus. That's the same one he recently told the Weekly that, rather than using for a tax cut, he wants to restrict to use for more cops, higher pay for most of the county's 7,500 employees, and to shore up the woefully low reserve fund. That $4.6 million also could reopen the birthing unit at Kino Community Hospital and cover its debt for a few years. Activist Ellen Kurtz expressed outrage that the county didn't just buy the whole ranch through condemnation. Easy for her to say. She lives in Santa Cruz County.

Finally, John Bernal, the county's former transportation director who left for a six-year job as director of the federal border and water commission in El Paso, is returning to be head of county Public Works. He is being billed as a savior who will ride herd on Keenan. He's already billed the county $15,000 for pre-job consulting. We remember when Bernal was a planner and spokesmodel for another legendary land speculator, Frank Aries--a real S&L stalwart--as well as developer Emery Chukly, whose Desert Springs shopping center near Catalina State Park was crushed in referendum in 1990.

Stay tuned, Norton.