After failing to include federally-required sidewalks in its $100 million road-bond package, the city is tapping into a loan program intended to create long-term jobs and stimulate the local economy to make up for the funding shortfall
The move rankled at least two members of the City Council, who say that while the maneuver may be legal, it’s not right because it goes against what taxpayer were promised when the economic development fund was created.
In November, Tucson voters narrowly approved $100 million in bonds to fix some of the city’s crumbling streets over five years.
Throughout the campaign, city officials trumpeted the fact that nearly every penny of the bond funds would be used on curb-to-curb road improvements and little else.
But those plans failed to account for sidewalk and other nonroad improvements mandated under the Americans with Disabilities Act when a city makes substantial repairs to a roadway.
“By law we have to provide an accessible path of travel … along our sidewalks,” city Transportation Director Daryl Cole told the council last month.
Transportation planners were aware of the law, but that wasn’t their focus, he said.
City planners focused on the greatest need: road repair, Cole said.
“Our focus has been getting down to our primary asset, our pavement,” he said.
Furthermore, Tucsonans have historically never put a high priority on sidewalks, which is why many parts of town lack them, he said.
Combine those two factors with a need to win over voters at the polls and you have a decent idea how sidewalk improvements were left out of the road bonds, he said.
The oversight left the city in the lurch.
So the Transportation Department presented a plan to the mayor and City Council that would allow the city Transportation Department to borrow $1.7 million from the city’s $20 million Tucson Community Development Loan Fund to cover the initial sidewalk improvements with the hope revenue sources can be found in the future.
To pay back the loan, the Transportation Department would take $100,000 a year from a federal block grant the city receives each year to create jobs, remove blight or make other improvements in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.
The proposal raised a few eyebrows on the council.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said during a council meeting she wasn’t entirely convinced the money was being spent properly.
Uhlich said the city created the $20 million loan program to provide gap financing for projects, such as a downtown hotel that will provide long-term jobs for people, not the kind of temporary jobs proposed in the Transportation Department’s plan.
US money sits idle
Chris Kaselemis, director of the city’s Economic Initiatives Program, told the council the city had the money for about two years and hasn’t had any viable applications for it. He said the federal government was starting to wonder why the money wasn’t being used.
Housing and Urban Development) is “saying you’ve got this $20 million allocation. Let’s see you use it,” Kaselemis said during a council meeting. “That’s part of the impetus for moving forward with internal use of the funds.”
Cole said it was an appropriate use of the money because the 14 miles of road where the improvements will occur run through poorer neighborhoods around the city.
While it may have satisfied the letter of the law, Councilman Steve Koza-
chik said it didn’t align with the spirit in which the city adopted these programs.
“That’s not what that money is for,” Kozachik said. “(Cole) put all these pieces together, and they all kind of fit, but they don’t fit real gracefully.”
Kozachik said those dollars were intended to cover gaps in private economic development projects, not to fill holes in city department budgets.
While the council eventually gave the green light, members cautioned it shouldn’t become a habit.
“We’re going to give you the benefit of the doubt this time,” Kozachik said. “But don’t do this again.”
Cole expects his department should be able to stretch out the funds to at least 2015. He said by that time, funding for the remaining sidewalks should be either in place or identified.