As the Arizona Legislature struggles to pass a budget, the financial news just gets worse.
Arizona finished the fiscal year on June 30 with an estimated shortfall of nearly $474 million, even after all the cuts that lawmakers made back in January, according to the latest report from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. That's partially because Gov. Jan Brewer wasn't able to use $250 million in federal stimulus funds on education programs like she thought she could, but that money can probably be sloshed around in the current year's budget—provided lawmakers ever approving one.
The $8.24 billion the state collected during the fiscal year is the lowest take since 2005. After that number is adjusted for various accounting concerns, the number drops to $7.69 billion, which is more than 18 percent lower than the previous fiscal year. The state hadn't seen a drop that steep since World War II.
More bad news: The state still hasn't hit bottom. June's overall tax collections were $137.5 million below June 2008. June's sales-tax collections dropped 14.4 percent compared to June 2008, making it the 17th consecutive month that revenues have fallen compared to the same month the previous year. Those declines have been in the double digits for the last eight months.
COMMUNITY MINDED FUNDING
The Tucson City Council in December optimistically approved a pre-development agreement to spur downtown investment. City-owned property on Broadway Boulevard that once held a Volvo dealership was being used to lure privately financed restoration work in downtown's historic Warehouse District.
That deal, along with several subsequent proposals, fell through—under contentious circumstances. But the Volvo property, appraised at $1.9 million when the city acquired it a few years ago, may still end up helping the Warehouse District.
Last week, the Warehouse Arts Management Organization (WAMO), created to preserve and promote the district, put in a proposal to acquire the Volvo property. Joining representatives from the Friends of Tucson's Birthplace (the group working to re-create the Mission Gardens) and the Rialto Theatre Foundation, WAMO submitted a formal request that the city donate the land to them so they can sell it.
WAMO would receive 40 percent of the proceeds and use the funds to help restore the historic Steinfeld Warehouse on West Sixth Street. Not everyone on the WAMO board, though, approves of this use of the money.
The Rialto Foundation would get 20 percent and use it to purchase the space next to the theater lobby, which is needed for restroom upgrades and other improvements. This space is part of the increasingly bitter controversy between the Rialto and the owners of the space, Scott Stiteler and Don Martin.
Finally, with Rio Nuevo downtown-revitalization money apparently no longer available to achieve the goal, 40 percent would go toward completing the Mission Garden work "as originally planned."
For months, the Volvo property has been used as bait to attract downtown investment—which would primarily benefit the private sector. It will be interesting to see how the City Council reacts to a proposal to use the land to benefit the entire community instead.
A seamy saga came to a close last month, when Mary Jo Spring stepped down as executive director of the Hermitage Cat Shelter.
In her tumultuous three years, Spring—a fundraiser by trade—sacked most of the shelter's employees and banned most of its volunteers, while apparently failing to pull in money.
Spring had no previous shelter experience, and it showed: A year into her tenure, she claims to have suddenly realized that many cats suffered from health problems. She blamed the staff, and under her direction, the shelter went so far as to file lawsuits against three former employees.
But that strategy backfired in court, where Spring was forced to admit that a cleaning solution may have been allowed to pool on the shelter floor. That solvent could have sparked a health crisis resulting in the euthanasia of some 70 cats.
It also became clear in court that the shelter was in a financial tailspin.
"There was $350,000 in the Hermitage account when Spring was hired," testified former board member Vernon Alexander, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and aerospace executive. "But when I left, they were down to $32,000. ... She had done no fundraising activities."
As board president, Tom Tulowitzki was Spring's greatest champion. Now just a rank-and-file board member, he suggests to The Skinny that Alexander was lying under oath. But he won't say how much money remains in the Hermitage coffers, nor will he explain whether Spring was given the boot or chose to resign.
"That's a private board matter," he says.
These days, many things seem private at the Hermitage; since the chaos began, the Hermitage board has held its meetings behind closed doors. So even with Spring's departure, it remains to be seen whether this once-vaunted institution can pull itself back from the brink.
CITIZENS FEELING DUPED
Saguaro Ranch neighbors—still in the midst of litigation against developer Stephen Phinny regarding public easements that go through his high-end development—feel they've been duped by Marana, and now, Pima County.
Tracy Chamberlain, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents regarding access to Marana, Saguaro Ranch and Tortolita Mountain Park. One of the public easements feeds into another easement, purchased by Pima County with the idea that the county would turn it into the main park access road. The property surrounding the easement was purchased by Phinny for his development. Then Marana annexed Saguaro Ranch—and inherited the problems Phinny had with his neighbors, who were angry that he'd blocked two public easements, even building on top of one of them.
In late May, the Marana Town Council voted to abandon an easement that was an extension of Thornydale Road. Chamberlain says she's discovered, thanks to her FOIA request, that as the city was supposedly doing research to figure out if it should abandon the extension, Marana officials were contacting the county to begin the process of trading the county-owned property for an alternative route proposed by Phinny.
In late April, Marana parks director Tom Ellis wrote an e-mail to Pima County Parks and Recreation asking the county to allow Marana to begin the process of park-access changes. Pima County Parks and Recreation director Rafael Payan responded in a letter on May 1, telling Ellis the county was interested. On May 21, the Town Council voted to abandon the easement.
"(W)hat is most surprising about all of this is that although Marana told the public that the town was going to conduct this three-phase study, it appears that they, instead, immediately began discussion about getting Phinny's alternate trail proposal off the ground. ... It is clear they were only stalling for time to conceal what was going to take place next," Chamberlain e-mailed to The Skinny.
Chamberlain says she's disappointed in the county, since county officials essentially allowed Marana to give away public land that remains in dispute. Chamberlain and her neighbors contend that the original easement would have offered the best park access.
While Steve Anderson, Pima County's trails and open space coordinator, says he agrees, he claims that in the end, the decision was Marana's, because the property was annexed by the town.
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