Citizen Staff Writer
The Tucson City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to look into seeking a detailed, outside audit of Rio Nuevo.
The city’s downtown development program has been criticized for a perceived lack of accountability, transparency and timely results, and the Legislature has threatened to withdraw the sales tax money that funds it or to require new oversight.
Councilwoman Nina Trasoff, who heads the now-suspended meetings of the Rio Nuevo subcommittee, voted for the audit proposal after saying that she thought it was unnecessary and likely costly.
“It’s just one more time that we’re not going to be putting bricks in the ground, railroad tracks in the ground,” she said. “We’ll be spending Rio Nuevo money on one more, in essence, study.”
Trasoff said she hoped, however, that the audit would dispel some of the criticism of the district.
The council will evaluate the scope and cost of the audit, as well as who would pay for it, before a contract is signed, City Attorney Mike Rankin said.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich proposed the audit as well as the audit commission created last summer after a budget-related conflict with City Manager Mike Hein.
On Tuesday, she also proposed looking into ways to clarify the managerial and financial boundaries between Rio Nuevo and the city, whose discretionary spending budget is on the hook if the special district can’t pay back the $80 million in recently issued bonds.
Part of Uhlich’s proposal was to explore taking the Rio Nuevo special district out of the control of the City Manager’s Office, though she said the measure was not “an editorial comment” and could be construed as a relief to Hein.
Hein said he “wasn’t sure whether to be giddy or depressed.” He is slated for an annual review April 7.
By district administrative rules, Hein is the district’s executive director. By state statute, the city’s finance director is Rio Nuevo’s treasurer, Rankin said.
Uhlich’s effort to separate Rio Nuevo further from the city failed, with council members Rodney Glassman, Shirley Scott and Trasoff voting against such a move.
Instead, the council unanimously voted to hold quarterly public hearings on downtown development to include financial statements and contract guidelines.
Talk of accountability ran through the council’s Tuesday discussion of the city budget.
The deficit in the general fund for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is projected at $1.6 million, down from about $80 million six months ago.
That figure depends on several things that haven’t occurred yet: layoffs tied to consolidated departments, cuts in funding to public transit and nonprofit groups, increased benefit costs to city employees, furloughs and $5 million in “revenue enhancements.”
The council voted to have the city attorney prepare the paperwork necessary to confirm the layoffs in the hopes that the soon-to-be-unemployed workers could fill vacancies in the city.
The board that was assembled to review council salaries recommended no increase because of expected city employee layoffs and the economic downturn.
It also voted to add a public hearing on the budget to its April 28 meeting one week after Hein will have proposed a city budget. Two public hearings are required by state statute, Rankin said.
“We have been waiting to hear correct numbers,” said Councilwoman Regina Romero, who requested the additional public hearing. “I can sense some exasperation at the table.”
Exasperation, however, was not confined to the council.
The council’s decision not to waive a requirement that department heads live in the city frustrated police, who could be without a permanent chief at the end of May.
“That was lunacy,” police union President Larry Lopez said of the vote, which followed a decision two weeks ago to call off a nationwide search and to open the position only to candidates from within the Tucson Police Department.
“They’ll get the same two, maybe three, candidates” as in the last search, Lopez said. He estimated the vote ruled out as many as a dozen potential candidates.
Assistant City Manager Richard Miranda, a former Tucson police chief, said Tuesday it was unclear how and when the search would proceed.
Councilman Steve Leal was absent Tuesday.
City may seek full audit of Rio Nuevo program