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Bonds Away

Everybody wants a piece of the action in next May's county bond election.

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The county's May bond election began as an anticipated $250 million request for open space acquisition as part of the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan.

As of now, the bond wish list has hit $710 million, with another $150 million in wastewater projects that, unlike the property-tax-supported open space and other items, would be financed by sewer user and hook-up fees.

The county's full bond committee will hear the open space and cultural preservation pitch for the first time Friday. Divided among seven geographic areas and adding cultural and historic preservation, the Conservation Bond totals the $250 million that was talked about well before the nine-member conservation committee started its 16-meeting schedule in July.

What bond advisory members are not likely to hear, but what is clear from the information their packets, is the renewed call for money for parcels that were on the list for purchase in bonds approved by voters six years ago. Back, for example, are Los Morteros parcels in the Tucson Mountains, Tumamoc Hill, Painted Hills, Dos Picos and two parcels at the west end of 36th Street.

Canoa Ranch soaked up $6.6 million to satisfy speculator David Williamson's Fairfield Homes and then-Supervisor Raul Grijalva, a Democrat. Canoa is back for $5 million for building rehabilitation under the historic preservation component of the proposed conservation bond.

Only Pat King, a pioneer in cooperative conservation agreements among ranchers and property owners in Altar Valley, dissented from the conservation committee recommendation.

"I do not believe Pima County should purchase all this land," King said. "I think they have no business owning this much land."

Members of the committee have tried to separate the open space bond, which dwarfs all previous tax-supported land buys, from the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. That plan, spanning 5.9 million acres, is based on biology and goes beyond land acquisition. It includes various methods, from conservation easements to land-use restrictions, to preserve habitat for up to 55 endangered or threatened species.

But the funding is, as top county officials have repeatedly conceded, the essential bedrock to the key Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan component that requires removing large tracts of land from sticks-and-stucco inventory.

The requested amount is nine times higher than the $27.9 million that Pima County voters pushed through for open space within the overall $361 million bond package in May 1997. While that open space issue passed by a wide margin, fewer than one in five voters were lured to the polls in that special election.

Conservation backers say anything less than the $250 million will not work.

"The Conservation Bond Advisory Committee feels strongly that a conservation bond package in an amount less than $250 million would not be sufficient to fund the county's multi-species habitat conservation plan, without imposing an unnecessarily large burden on the community to fund future phases as land values increase in the next 20 to 50 years," committee members say in the report to full bond committee.

Spending would be on the fast track, with $250 million to be used within five to seven years, according to committee recommendations.

The bonds would be repaid via property taxes, and Pima County's are already the highest among Arizona's 15 counties.

Meanwhile, Republican Supervisor Ann Day is busy touting a bond that won't exceed $400 million that she asserts will keep in check the county's portion of taxes for debt repayment. That burden is $81.50 (of a county total of $550) this year for the owner of home on the tax rolls at $100,000. But Day's analysis fails to include the amount of increase in the county's overall property value, future bond interest rates, county bond ratings, and sale schedules, all of which will play a part in what rate taxpayers are charged.

Unlike the county's road transportation bond, the 1997 open space program moved rapidly, with $24 million spent to snap up 7,100 acres through last year. That meant inflated prices in some cases and oddball appraisals that use properties that are separated by great distances--including metropolitan Tucson--as comparables.

But like the transportation bond, open space monies have been shifted to satisfy political pressure, including increases in spending in Tucson Mountains and for the Canoa Ranch. Voters, for example, authorized less than one third--$2 million--of what was spent on Canoa. The big losers were those pushing for preservation in the Tortolita Mountains, where money was raided for land buys elsewhere.

Neale Allen, who has worked to preserve land on the northwest side, lamented that loss of Tortolita open space funding in a conservation committee meeting and urged better balance. That may be rectified with a move this week by County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry to seek a multi-million dollar application for Tortolita lands through the Arizona Preserve Initiative.

Open space is just one item for the full bond advisory committee, which will meet Friday at the Manning House, 450 W. Paseo Redondo, beginning at 8:30 a.m.

The county's costly menu now includes $78 million for the sheriff's department, including a $70 million regional public safety communications system; $50 million for a new Justice Court complex and rehab of the Old Courthouse; $60 million in flood control, including $10 million for land purchases in flood-prone and riparian areas; $71.3 million for parks and recreation; $157.7 million for county facilities, including $71 million for Kino Community Hospital improvements and expansion and new psychiatric facilities; $13.7 million for landfills; and $30 million for neighborhood reinvestment.

Voters gave the county permission for a similar amount of debt in 1997, with passage at two elections of bonds that totaled $710 million.

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