City open space spending to date falls short of initiative's cap

This is the sixth in a series of articles on issue questions that the Daily Courier asked of the Prescott Mayor and City Council candidates.

PRESCOTT - Now about three-quarters of the way through the 15-year sales tax initiative that voters approved in 2000, Prescott has spent less than 40 percent of the amount earmarked for the purchase of open space.

Prescott Budget and Finance Director Mark Woodfill reported that the city's open space purchases since 2001 total $16,045,899. That is about $24.7 million shy of the $40.7 million that officials hoped to spend at the time of the initiative.

And with the City Council currently allocating $500,000 a year toward open space, some doubt exists among the candidates running for Prescott mayor and City Council that the city will reach the $40.7 million mark by 2015.

Indeed, several of the candidates agree with the City Council's current stand, which has prioritized street improvements over open space purchases.

"What has driven (the spending) is the economic condition and, at this moment, the public has said other things are more important," said incumbent Mayor Marlin Kuykendall.

Council candidate Charlie Arnold agreed. "Economic times have hindered (the purchase of open space)," he said. "If our streets were in good shape, I would absolutely say 'yes' (on increased open space funding)."

Council candidate Alan Dubiel maintained, however, that the City Council should push for "finding the property, if any, that can be acquired to fulfill the voters' intent."

The conflict between streets and open space dates back to the 2000 initiative, which coupled the two for the next 15 years. At the time, City Council members came up with a list of "high-priority" open space parcels, and the approximate costs of preserving them.

After tallying the estimated value of the parcels - including Thumb Butte-area land, Granite Dells land, and state land on Badger "P" Mountain and Glassford Hill - the city came up with a total of $40.7 million.

At the time, Prescott was five years into its original 10-year sales tax for street improvements. The 2000 initiative added 10 more years onto that 1 percent sales tax increase - running until 2015 - and added open space to the mix.

To allay concerns that open space purchases would take resources away from the streets program, the 2000 City Council pointed out that the 10-year extension was projected to generate about $70 million (at $7 million per year), and that the additional $30 million could go toward the street program.

In fact, the 1 percent sales tax almost immediately began generating considerably more than the estimate. City records show that the 1 percent tax brought in $9.3 million in (fiscal year) 2002, and continued to grow throughout the next five years, peaking in 2007 at $15.3 million.

After that, the revenue began dropping - ranging from $14.4 million in 2008 to $11.6 million in (fiscal-year) 2011.

Even so, since 2005, the sales tax has generated a total of about $92.9 million ($123.5 since fiscal year 2002) - well over the $70 million that the 2000 City Council expected from the full 10 years of the extension.

During that time, the balance of the higher-than-expected revenues has gone to street improvements. Since 2001, records show that $158.5 million has gone toward street improvements, compared with the $16 million for open space.

(Woodfill attributed the discrepancy between revenues and expenditures, in part, to the fact that the city already had a significant reserve on hand in 2001. In addition, he said the city uses sources other than sales tax, including grant and borrowed money, to pay for its streets projects. In 2010, for instance, the city borrowed $18 million for the Highway 89A/Granite Dells Parkway interchange.)

City officials say the council is justified in directing the bulk of the sales tax money toward streets because of a 2006 Yavapai County Superior Court ruling that stated: "There is no requirement that mandates the city to spend revenue according to any particular formula."

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit that local resident Meredith Marder filed, claiming that the city should be devoting a higher percentage of its streets/open space sales tax revenues to open space.

City Attorney Gary Kidd says the ruling upheld the city's stance that "it's completely discretionary as a budgeting function."

In an effort to represent the public's interests in the lakes and dells areas, a non-profit group, the Granite Dells Preservation Foundation, kicked off its efforts in June.

Foundation member Jim Lawrence said this week that the organization "will be active in the months ahead facilitating and representing the public's interest in several broader planning efforts begin undertaken by the tri-cities, Yavapai County and user groups."

He added that "timed evaluation and recommendations for open space acquisitions will be included."

To date, the city has bought 287 acres of open space, including parcels in the Thumb Butte area, the Granite Dells area, the Watson and Willow lakes areas, and at the Prescott Rodeo Grounds.

Ballots will begin going out in the mail during the week of Aug. 8 for the Aug. 30 city primary.