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Legislators should keep hands off our TIF allotment

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

Legislative threats to yank millions of dollars in funding from Tucson’s downtown redevelopment are unfair and shortsighted.

And the threats are based on information that is outdated and irrelevant.

Nonetheless, Tucson officials must take the threats seriously as legislators who are desperate to erase a massive budget deficit look to grab every available dime.

And when the legislative grilling continues next week, those defending Tucson’s position should be far better prepared than they were this week.

At issue is Tucson’s use of tax increment financing for Rio Nuevo downtown projects. TIF allows the city to keep, instead of sending to the state, increased sales tax revenue in a given geographic area to spend within that area.

Legislators are unhappy with the pace of Rio Nuevo, and some want the state to cancel the deal. But before considering such a precipitous decision, legislators need to get their facts straight:

• Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, said TIF funds have been used for 10 years. The funds didn’t start flowing until 2003.

• Legislators spent gobs of time hammering Tucson for spending money to study a project that was dropped and precious little time discussing what has been and is being built.

• Eviscerating Tucson’s downtown redevelopment funds would be a financial blow felt by the entire state.

• Tucson sold bonds to get work started and plans to repay the bonds with promised TIF dollars. The state can’t legally cancel a revenue stream on which Tucson has bonded.

Nonetheless, pressure on Tucson will continue next week with more legislative roasting. Tucson must be armed and ready to fight back.

It was not helpful this week when Greg Shelko, Rio Nuevo director, didn’t have all the facts and figures at his fingertips when legislators quizzed him. Shelko must have whatever he needs next week – even if he needs to take a truckload of documents with him.

A history lesson also is important: Legislators OK’d the TIF money for Tucson in an agreement that also included three TIF projects for Phoenix. A hockey arena and a football stadium were among the projects built in Maricopa County with money diverted from the state.

For legislators – most of whom hail from Maricopa County – to cancel the arrangement after Phoenix has sucked far more dollars out of the deal would be grossly unfair to Tucson, the state’s second-largest city.

Downtown redevelopment is not an undertaking as simple as building a $455 million stadium on vacant land – as Maricopa County did with some of its money.

Tucson has done nothing wrong in its use of Rio Nuevo money. In hindsight, work could have been done better and possibly quicker.

Legislators should order the city to clean up its labyrinthine accounting procedures so it is easier for someone without CPA certification to track the uses of TIF money. But they then should back away and let Tucson continue to keep money generated here for local projects.

The TIF deal gave money to Tucson and Phoenix. It would be unfair to cancel only Tucson’s share of the funding.

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