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Senators dubious of Rio Nuevo’s worth

Citizen Staff Writer



Rio Nuevo proponents need to find 16 state Senate votes to preserve an estimated $8.6 million in tax increment financing for the next fiscal year starting in July.

The eight senators on the Senate Finance Committee were “underwhelmed” Wednesday as city and private sector leaders tried to convince the panel of Rio Nuevo’s merits, said state Sen. Jim Waring, a Phoenix Republican who chairs the committee.

“One member said, ‘Is this all there is after all these years?’ ” Waring said, recounting a statement by Sen. Ken Cheuvront, a Phoenix Democrat. “I would say the committee was disappointed by the presentation.”

Waring said Rio Nuevo and many other programs getting state funding will be brought to a Republican caucus meeting Tuesday as senators work to build a budget in the next six weeks and look for cuts to plug an anticipated $2.4 billion to $3 billion deficit.

“At some point we have to decide what to do with this,” Waring said about Rio Nuevo. “We need to make sure all the programs we fund are working well. When the budget package is presented, (senators) are going to have to decide are they for this or not.”

Rio Nuevo director Greg Shelko and city lobbyist Mary Okoye don’t believe the state will be able to withdraw any Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funding because essentially all of next year’s estimated $8.6 million will go to the $8.8 million in bond payments due on the $80 million Rio Nuevo bond issued in December and the 2005 $4.7 million bond for the Fox Theatre.

“There is legislation that they cannot interrupt the revenue stream on which we’ve bonded,” Okoye said.

Waring said the Legislature will consider even small amounts as it looks to close what is described by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities of Washington, D.C. as the worst state budget deficit compared with spending in the nation.

“Every dollar counts,” Waring said. “There is no such thing as too small dollar amounts. We’re scrambling.”

Shelko, who addressed the finance committee, said the committee focused entirely on past matters such as the abandoned Rainbow Bridge for the University of Arizona Science Center and how the Rio Nuevo district lines were drawn in 1999.

Shelko said projects such as the Tucson Convention Center hotel, Tucson Origins and downtown infrastructure work were not discussed.

“I don’t know why people are ignoring tangible facts,” Shelko said. “A considerable amount of construction has taken place since spring 2006. Nobody wants to talk about any of these projects.”

Okoye, the city’s intergovernmental relations director, said Tucson is still fighting off how the Rio Nuevo district includes Park Place and El Con Mall, and that most of the efforts in the first nine years have gone to planning.

“There are clearly misperceptions that still exist,” Okoye said. “We could have done the whole city (as the Rio Nuevo district). The jurisdiction draws the district lines and the voters vote on it. For the stadium district (in Phoenix), they included all of Maricopa County.”

Waring said he was especially troubled by the $13 million in Rio Nuevo funding spent in planning the $350 million Rainbow Bridge across Interstate 10 and the Santa Cruz River, a project that was abandoned in 2006 because it was deemed too expensive.

“I could have told them that without spending $13 million,” Waring said.

What’s at issue is tax increment financing derived from sales tax increases above 1999 levels in the Rio Nuevo district. Without the tax increment financing, those dollars would go to the state instead of to downtown Tucson revitalization.

“The issue is the state is giving us money,” Okoye said. “It’s money generated in our community to invest locally. We’re a donor community (sending more money to the state than the state distributes here).”

City pitches Rio Nuevo’s merits to skeptical senators

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