Homeless No More

How City Staffers Take Care Of Themselves At The Expense Of Those They're Supposed To Help -- A Brief, Sorry History.

By Dave Devine

IN 1995 THE Tucson City Council told the Community Services Department, which provides housing and other assistance to the poor, not to spend $1.7 million on a new headquarters building. Instead, the council members said, they wanted to spend that money on housing and youth programs.

But a few weeks ago, the council approved almost $5 million to construct a new building for Community Services, even though the proposal has been labeled a "Taj Mahal" by one council member.

How did this switcheroo come about?

Currents In 1979 the city acquired the 408-unit Tucson House high-rise apartment complex on Oracle Road and converted it to public housing for the elderly and disabled. The next year some Community Services offices were moved to the complex's ground floor, wiping out 19 apartments. In 1986 more Community Services employees relocated to the building.

The growth in the number of city employees at the Tucson House eventually created too much congestion for officials. But the building was certainly better than some other city office space, like the old department store on Pennington Street that for years has served as a city hall annex.

In 1993 officials announced the Tucson House was not meeting the building code's structural strength requirements. The next year an analysis of the ground floor showed that instead of having a capacity to carry 50 to 70 pounds per square foot, the standard for office uses, the area--not surprisingly--had been built to handle 40, the residential requirement.

Furthermore, due to the presence of filing cabinets and other equipment related to office use, loads of up to 100 pounds per square foot were being placed on the building, according to city officials. Based on that finding, and the congested conditions, Community Services officials decided to leave Tucson House.

In March 1995 they asked the City Council to authorize $1.725 million either to build or acquire a new facility. But Karen Thoreson, Community Services director, admitted the figure was a ballpark number and it could eventually double.

But the City Council, by a 5-to-1 vote, denied the request. Then-councilman Bruce Wheeler said he wasn't convinced of a compelling reason to move the department. He added that he'd rather spend the money on other urgent needs of youths and the poor, and he pointed out there were many other city departments that also needed new space.

"We've got so many people in the community who've been on waiting lists (for housing services) for six or eight years," Councilman Steve Leal said at the time, "and we haven't been able to find the money for them. Yet when [city bureaucrats] have a need, we seem to be able to find the money."

City staffers suggested that a second structural analysis could be done on the building. The council, however, rejected that idea--twice.

Nevertheless, city staffers performed a second structural investigation in late 1995.

The resulting report confirmed the findings of the first analysis. It concluded, "This overloading could lead to the development of stress cracks and excessive deflections in the floor slab...Due to floor coverings, the current condition of the first-floor slab could not be observed." Thus, while use of the Tucson House as office space obviously exceeded building code standards, the actual structural impacts after 15 years of Community Services' presence in the space were unknown.

By 1996 the makeup of the council was different, some members had changed their minds, and city staffers were back with another request. This time they were suggesting the preparation of a $150,000 design report on a possible new Community Services building.

While four council members--George Miller, Janet Marcus, Shirley Scott and Michael Crawford--supported the idea, then-councilwoman Molly McKasson remained unconvinced. She said some people were homeless in Tucson because the city lacked sufficient money to house them, and added she was "concerned with not just the appearance but the substance of the request."

Thoreson reported that Community Services officials had looked at the option of staying in the Tucson House, but it would cost $500,000 or more for structural improvements, and that a sizable amount of space would be lost. She also said, "Your support of this (request) only allows us to proceed through some design, financing and further feasibility analysis. It does not approve any future funds."

But three months later the department's departure from the Tucson House was cemented by an unrelated council action. As part of its consent agenda, those routine issues which are adopted without discussion, the council was asked to approve a financing plan for the rehabilitation of the entire Tucson House building.

The five-page communication on the issue from the City Manager contained one sentence which indirectly indicated that Community Services offices would be converted back into apartments if the financing plan were approved. When the item passed, the department's move from the building was settled.

Even before they got that approval, Community Services officials had been pursuing the construction of a new building in cooperation with the United Way in the Rio Nuevo development west of downtown. Councilman José Ibarra, who represents the area, calls the proposed $4.9 million building a "Taj Mahal." He says he'd rather see some of the money spent on providing services to people.

Ibarra also believes Community Services should be more centrally located. He asked to discuss the entire proposal last year, but that never happened.

Thoreson says department officials looked at a number of existing downtown buildings. But lack of parking and sufficient square footage led them to recommend building a new facility. She also admits the reserve-account funds which will pay for the new structure could otherwise be used for projects related to public housing or for services to tenants of the Tucson House.

So plans are proceeding for a late summer ground-breaking for the new facility. Ibarra continues to protest the project, but when he does, he says city staffers "just smile at me." TW

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