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Many projects Pima voters OK'd in '97 still wait, but money's spent

Many projects Pima voters OK'd in '97 still wait, but money's spent

  • Updated

Thirty-six percent of the projects promised to voters in 1997 bond proposals were never done. But most of the $712 million has been spent because it was shifted to other projects voters were never asked to approve, or spent on projects that were significantly over budget.

Similarly, a third of the 58 projects completed so far with 2004 bonds are over budget. But many others have cost less than expected. And with much of the work still to be done - project schedules run through 2016 - a final evaluation of those bonds is premature.

The 1997 bonds were supposed to cover 10 years' worth of county construction needs.

Of the 55 road projects submitted to voters, 21 have not been done 13 years later. About $100 million of $350 million in road bonds remains unspent, based on the most recent bond progress report provided by Pima County.

The picture for non-road projects is much more bleak. Voters approved $362 million for 104 projects. Just 68 have been done at a cost of $444 million, leaving nothing for the 36 remaining projects.

The funding shifts were all approved by the Board of Supervisors on the recommendation of project managers who said the changes were needed to better respond to community needs.

Many of the changes were small, such as adding lights to an extra soccer field at Udall Park.

Others were converted into different projects. A $1 million plan to build three new sheriff's substations, one each in Vail, Catalina and Three Points, became a $628,000 project to build a single substation at Three Points and add electrical improvements at the sheriff's central administration building.

A few came in under budget, including the two-mile extension of the Rillito River Park from La Cholla Boulevard to I-10, which was budgeted at $2.4 million but finally cost $658,000.

Even more exceeded their budget. A $1 million plan to build an equestrian facility and athletic fields along the Rillito River Linear Park ended up costing the full $1 million just to buy the land, on which nothing has been built.

Flood-control projects were big overspenders. Ten of 13 flood-control projects on the 1997 bond ballot combined to go 167 percent over budget, although a portion of the overruns came from federal grants. Other cost overruns, not just in flood control but in all areas, are generally made up by shifting taxpayer funds from other uses.

Wildly inflated materials costs before and after Hurricane Katrina get some of the blame, said Suzanne Shields, Flood Control District director. But a lot of the increased costs were due to the district's expanding the scope of projects.

The Mission View Wash project, creating a flood detention basin along South Park Avenue and East 36th Street, was supposed to cost $1 million.

Planners realized it would solve flooding in only one area of the stream, Shields said. "It went from small to large, but it addressed water collected from three upstream watersheds, and has essentially removed a much larger area from flooding," raising the final bill to $8.3 million.

Solid waste was another problem area.

The Sahuarita landfill was supposed to be expanded from 20 acres to 40 with $900,000. It ended up costing $4 million before it was finished in September 2007. The three other solid- waste projects had not been done at the time of the most recent annual update in June.

Ursula Kramer, county environmental quality director, also cited increasing construction costs. She said the other projects haven't been done because solid-waste priorities in the county have changed since the bonds were approved.

One of the biggest overruns - $22 million - involved expanding the Ina Road wastewater treatment plant by 50 percent. Although the originally planned $62.6 million project came in slightly under budget, an extra $24 million was spent on additional unplanned work related to the expansion and routine maintenance.

Some of the extra money may have come from wastewater management's not spending $8 million on four interceptors that were promised to handle sewage. Michael Gritzuk, wastewater director, said they weren't needed because population growth has slowed.

"We will move ahead with the infrastructure when there is a need to do it," he said.

Road bonds approved in 1997 totaled $350 million. Some of the 21 projects that have not been done were rolled into the 20-year Regional Transportation Plan for more funding. Many of those will eventually be built with a mix of bond and RTA funds, said Priscilla Cornelio, county transportation director.

Of 33 projects that have been done, 21 were over budget by 10 percent or more.

None, however, came close to the 533 percent cost overrun for widening Skyline Drive to four lanes from North Chula Vista to Campbell Avenue. Estimated cost: $3.6 million. Final cost, after the Transportation Department added two more lanes to part of the road: $22.8 million.

Like other department heads, Cornelio blamed higher materials costs.

Another 13 projects came in under budget, but some of those were reduced in scope.

Two projects to widen stretches of roadway were scaled back to improve a single intersection on each. One of those, however, the South 12th Avenue/West Valencia Road intersection, ended up costing more than the entire widening project was budgeted for.

A plan to widen Palo Verde Road to six lanes from Interstate 10 to the railroad tracks turned into a protective overlay on the existing asphalt for a much shorter distance.

The county still has $100 million of the $350 million in bond authority approved by voters in 1997, if it wants to deliver some of the 21 missing projects. But Cornelio said she doesn't want to sell those bonds because they're supposed to be repaid from state gas taxes and she isn't getting enough money from the state to pay off those bonds and do maintenance such as filling potholes and routine pavement overlays.

The 91-project, $732 million, 2004 bond package has far fewer changes, but it's also only halfway through the allotted 12-year construction time.

Fifty-eight of those projects have been completed. While 19 individual projects have gone over budget, overall they have been significantly cheaper than expected - a reflection of declining construction costs in response to the flagging economy.

The 58 finished were expected to cost $428 million, but have a combined price tag of just $332 million.

County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said other than road projects, which depend on declining state revenue to pay off, everything taxpayers were promised will eventually be done, although the county will have to find some other way to pay for them, including the possibility of asking voters to approve more bonds.

Because any changes go through public votes of the Bond Advisory Committee and the Board of Supervisors, there are many opportunities for people to see what is being changed and weigh in.

"What we've done has been very open and transparent about what gets changed or why," he said.

Supervisor Ray Carroll said he is concerned about the amount of outstanding debt the county carries.

"I just want to make sure we're delivering on that debt," Carroll said.

Though all changes to project plans are approved by the supervisors, Carroll said he's been more reluctant to approve changes than he was when the '97 bonds first passed, especially because of the track record of the transportation bond projects.

"I look at them case by case, but obviously there's a lot of concern that I have about changing the requests of voters on anything."

Huckelberry has said the county pays off 80 percent of its debt in the first 10 years, and 100 percent of it in 15 years.

"We use debt to finance capital improvements and we retire it fairly quickly compared to other governments," Huckelberry said.

Supervisor Sharon Bronson said the debt associated with the projects is worth it because it's for projects voters said they want.

Supervisor Richard Elías said the bond projects have created jobs for the community.

Contact reporter Andrea Kelly at akelly@azstarnet.com or 807-7790.


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