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UA payments from city raise new doubts on Rio Nuevo

Citizen Staff Writer
Our Opinion

Tucson again has shot itself in the foot on Rio Nuevo funding – just as the Legislature is taking a close look at how the city has been spending the money.

In a story Monday, Tucson Citizen reporter Carli Brosseau reported that the city has been paying Rio Nuevo invoices submitted by the University of Arizona without the necessary scrutiny.

That’s a troubling revelation – and it comes at an especially troubling time.

Tax money diverted from the state is the backbone of funding for the Rio Nuevo downtown redevelopment project. And with the state facing a multi-billion-dollar deficit this fiscal year and next, legislators are looking to grab every available dime. It is not an overstatement to say the future of Rio Nuevo hangs in the balance.

Brosseau reported that city accountants have long been questioning invoices submitted by UA for its planned Science Center-State Museum complex downtown. It got to the point that the Rio Nuevo finance manager asked City Manager Mike Hein to sign a statement that allowed UA to be reimbursed for “expenditures the City does not allow on other District projects.”

Among the questionable UA charges paid from Rio Nuevo funds were $161,585 for salaries as well as money for food, computers, trips to Italy and $77,025 for “other speciality & design consultant fees.”

The expenditures may well have been legitimate. But maybe not. The city paid them all – apparently without determining whether they fell within stated guidelines.

Hein said he assumed they were acceptable expenses because they were submitted by another public body.

But the Rio Nuevo funds from the state are entrusted to the city and the Rio Nuevo District. Both jurisdictions have the responsibility to the state and to their constituents to verify the legitimacy of all expenses.

Hein now says the city will conduct an “internal review” of all payments to UA.

And Councilwoman Karin Uhlich, who called for a city audit commission in June after an unrelated financial dispute with Hein, said a review of payments to the UA museum complex could be the commission’s first assignment.

There may be nothing wrong with the payments to the university, and all the expenses may be justifiable and reasonable. But the city must be extra careful to be squeaky clean with its Rio Nuevo accounting to assuage any legislative doubts.

This is not the time for the city to supply legislators with more ammunition for the state’s mounting criticism.

Payments to UA may all have been legitimate. But they were not subjected to the scrutiny given other invoices.

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