Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry recommends that the county wait until 2015 to ask voters to approve millions in new bond projects. Given the financial circumstances of the voters and the county, it makes sense.
What doesn’t make sense, however, is talking about projects that out of the gate will never be part of a bond proposal.
Several of these, such as money to expand the Loft Cinema, which is run by a nonprofit organization, were included in a wide-ranging online survey that received around 17,000 responses. Their inclusion muddles what is already a complicated subject.
Huckelberry explained to the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee in a lengthy memo that he thinks going to voters in 2014 would be premature. The tax base — the cumulative property value that determines how much the county can go into debt by selling bonds — is projected to be $7.5 billion in fiscal year 2014-15, which is $2.3 billion less than it was in fiscal year 2009-10.
Pima County is also bumping up to a promised tax-rate cap, Huckelberry said. The limit is 81 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and the rate is now about 78 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. The county can’t issue an anticipated $700 million in new bonds, assuming voters approve the proposed packaged, and remain under that 81-cent cap, Huckelberry said.
The bond advisory committee is slated to decide on Huckelberry’s request at its meeting Friday. The members forward their recommendation to the Pima County Board of Supervisors, which decides when to hold bond elections.
Delaying a bond question on the ballot makes fiscal sense. But it also gives the community and bond advisory committee time to hash out what should be included in a package put before voters.
The first order of business should be to eliminate from consideration projects that, while they may be popular, are outside of county control and directly benefit a particular organization rather than a general audience.
For example, the Loft is asking for $500,000 to help with its expansion. Another project would give $280,000 to help the Desert Senita Community Health Center Facility in Ajo with maintenance costs.
Each plan may be worthy of support from other sources, but neither is appropriate for county bond funding. Including them would violate the state’s gift clause, which prevents using taxpayer money to benefit a private business or organization.
This variety of project is different from those that combine public and private assets — such as the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, which is situated on county-owned land but run by a separate organization — or involve properties on the National Register of Historic Places, like Mission San Xavier del Bac.
Huckelberry said that more time would give the advisory committee time to evaluate the large list of proposals and determine what is necessary, what is feasible and what shouldn’t be included in a final package put before voters.
Another proposal that merits more study is Huckelberry’s preliminary proposal to craft a $50 million bond package, which would be matched by municipalities, to pay for the top priority from those who answered the survey: fix the roads. It’s a clear necessity, and we look forward to forthcoming details.
The Bond Advisory Committee should recommend postponing a county bond election until 2015 — and the next time they ask the public to weigh in on priorities, the list should be contained to projects that can, under the law, be funded with bonds. Including proposals that don’t have a realistic chance of moving forward is confusing and could end up giving voters the wrong impression about what they’re ultimately being asked to approve.