The Tucson City Council signaled its plans Tuesday to put a $225 million bond measure on the November ballot designed to revitalize city parks.
Key to the strategy to turn around well-worn, overcrowded, once-green city parks that have become brown because of a lack of resources is a pledge that the new proposal won’t raise property taxes.
City Manager Mike Ortega explained on Tuesday that the new bond is being proposed at a time when the city’s debt service payments are scheduled to decline as old bonds are paid off.
City-run parks have long taken a back seat in fights over city budget allocations since the recession, with the last voter-backed bond and a separate sales tax initiative focusing on roads and public safety. Faced with ever-increasing maintenance budgets, the city has closed some parks — including city pools — rather than spend the funds to maintain them.
Vice Mayor Paul Cunningham said some of the city’s parks are simply unusable in the summer, noting that several lack shade, making metal slides and other playground equipment a hazard on hot days.
“All my kids play sports, so I am down there on Saturdays, and I see 300, 400, 500 people in three different parks throughout the day,” Cunningham said. “When you are out there what you see is dirt fields that used to be grass because you have a different team practicing on them every day.”
He concedes maintenance is also an issue, with the city falling behind on anything that isn’t a necessity.
“We have pools that are so dilapidated that if we opened them up for free, no one would come,” Cunningham said.
Ortega recommends that the new bond focus mostly on park improvements reflected in the Parks and Recreation Master Plan, last updated in 2016.
The plan identifies several community priorities: outdoor walking paths and trails; neighborhood and regional parks; sports fields; ramadas and picnic areas; and playgrounds.
It isn’t clear what will be included in the $225 million bond. On Tuesday, the council directed Ortega to draft a plan on how the millions of dollars would be spent and bring it back to the council next month.
What wasn’t addressed was a key recommendation in the plan related directly to long-term budgeting pertaining to any bond financing.
“It would be extremely important to identify additional funds to support operations and maintenance to support the new facilities,” city planners wrote in the 331-page Parks and Recreation Master Plan.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he believed that new sports lighting at some city parks would be part of the final proposal.
“That is going to cost some money, but that has been the No. 1 priority in this community,” he said.
He said he believes that if voters back the proposal, it will be an investment for the entire city.
“The City Council made a big step forward to improve the quality of life in the community,” Rothschild said.