Two things were evident in yesterday’s meeting of the new Rio Nuevo Board. First, Board president Fletcher McCusker and Board member Alberto Moore want to play by the rules after years of the City of Tucson making up the rules as they squandered $230 million of the taxpayers’ money. Second, the rules in place are there for a very good reason, and no reason offered by Moore and McCusker was a good enough reason to squander the public’s trust on the Manning House.
The new Rio Nuevo District Board may have squandered the public’s trust in the blink of an eye for a mere $20,000 in its unanimous decision to proceed with an option on the historic Manning House. Only 4 Board members, 1 by phone, attended the quickly called meeting in order to prevent a yard sale this weekend of the House’s dinnerware and furnishings.
In an open discussion of the issues, the Board addressed the reasons for the move. Unlike the City of Tucson, which would have held private negotiations and conducted a charade of a public hearing, the new Rio Nuevo Board were candid about the situation and their positions.
All Board members acknowledged that they did not now have the legal authority to enter into the agreement. However, they argued that by moving forward with the project, they would force a legal opinion which would clarify what they could and could not legally do.
They are awaiting a finding from Attorney General Tom Horne on their Notice to Proceed and the legality of engaging in any project other than the Tucson Community Center and a hotel.
The City of Tucson is trying to force the District to make repairs to the TCC for which the City is legally obligated. After years of neglect, a lawsuit by a member of the public for injuries incurred on the hazardous dilapidated bleachers, finally forced the City to address the deteriorating TCC.
The ticket tax was intended to pay for the upkeep of the TCC, but the City of Tucson had been sweeping those funds into the General Fund.
Now, the City wants Rio Nuevo to pay for their neglect, and Rio Nuevo wants to move on with projects that might spur new development.
However, in 1999, the voters supported a District that was supposed to create new development not save development that could not sustain itself. The public supports saving the Manning House, but does not support the use of public funds.
Despite the fact that between them, the volunteer Board could have privately raised the $20,000 easily from their own resources or those from the community with the cooperation of a radio show host and a 4 hour pledge drive, the Board instead decided to risk the public’s trust.
The reason for public’s distrust was exacerbated when during the public comment portion, Beth Walkup, wife of failed former Tucson mayor Bob Walkup, addressed the Board and advised them that she has been trying unsuccessfully to save the Manning House for ten years.
One attendee noted that that ineffectiveness must run in the Walkup family.
It appeared that the City and the powers-that-be will not give up their long fingered grasp.
Three speakers spoke in support of the Manning House option. Two said that while they valued the Manning House they did not support the District’s purchase, and one speaker asked for the Board to honor the promises made to the voters in 1999.
Yesterday, shortly before the Board’s vote, Ally Miller, wrote a letter to Arizona Senate president Steve Pierce requesting “an immediate order to stop the funding for the Rio Nuevo TIF District. “
Miller asked Pierce how “sinking money in the Manning House which has been a losing proposition under private management,” could be justified?
“In effect taxpayers are being asked to rehabilitate and subsidize the operation of yet another losing proposition. We already have the Fox Theatre in debt to the district to the tune of $6 million dollars, MOCA and Maynard’s market enjoying $1 per year leases. One of these leases is to the benefit of a former Rio Nuevo Board Member, Anne Marie Russell who is Director of MOCA. Just how much more do you propose the taxpayers of Arizona subsidize?
I have repeatedly questioned the instances of gross mismanagement cited in the October, 2010 independent report of Rio Nuevo by Crowe Horwath. I now question the timing of the firing of Chairwoman Jodi Bain who worked tirelessly pursuing forensic audits to bring accountability to the taxpayers for the loss of millions of dollars of taxpayer money. Bain should have been applauded for her efforts. Instead she was vilified in the media and fired with no justification from your office.
To continue with this purchase would be a political cover up of colossal proportions. The Rio Nuevo Board Members, responsible staff, and appointing authorities must bear ultimate responsibility for this decision. Deliberately not performing the responsibility of one’s job is at a minimum official misconduct and negligence.”
Ally Miller successfully fought for an FBI investigation into the past actions of the City that resulted in millions of missing or misspent Rio Nuevo District monies. She is currently running for position on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, due in part to the corruption she uncovered in the formerly City-controlled Rio Nuevo District.
“I have come to know Ally Miller as a tenacious representative of the taxpayers and now as a candidate, committed to a life of public service. She is strong willed and has a true sense of purpose. I was copied on her letter to President Pierce and would just like to make sure we all operate from the same set of facts,” wrote McCusker. “The $1 dollar lease issue raised by Ally has nothing to do with Rio Nuevo, those are with the city and a new ordinance will prohibit such leases going forward.”
McCusker continued, “As to the financial health of Rio Nuevo I think we have corrected the concerns about revenue and available cash in the release of our 2012-2103 budget. Concerns about the District’s ability to pay its debts or fund development were premature. We also recently announced a $2,500,000 TIF revenue pick up from auditing one large merchant in the District, with 1,000 audits left to go. We have embraced the forensic agenda established by our predecessors and, in fact, nearly tripled the audit budget.”
The City lost its control of Rio Nuevo in 2010 when the Legislature reconstituted the District due to the City’s corrupt or inept performance. The newly reconstituted Board commissioned audits to sort out the City’s tangled web.
“I hope people see we will operate under the law, in full view of the public and media and strive to see all sides. We have been tasked with balancing great forces in a highly charged environment, holding the city accountable for past misdeeds and at the same time using the money entrusted to us by the State to move downtown development forward,” said McCusker. “The Manning House could and should be a world class project. Every other TIF we have researched partnered with these sorts of developments: with other jurisdictions and with private developers. We made it very clear in our meeting we are not inclined to go after something like this alone.”
The new Board argued that the City failed to promote progress downtown and preserve its culture. The Board members say that they are buying time for the Manning House to be spared from private developers who may not value its historic significance to the community.
The public has until September, when the Board must exercise its option, to determine just what significance the Manning House has for them.