An inclusive process for county bond projects.
To help keep up with aging infrastructure and growth demands, voters on occasion are asked to support new bond authorizations that provide a reliable and practical source of funding--especially important given the stubborn economic climate that persists in many areas of the country.
Voters are feeling the economic pinch too. They are going to weigh such requests carefully, looking for assurance that the projects will provide strong public benefit and be managed efficiently and fairly.
Pima County has developed a model for securing that voter trust unique not only to the State of Arizona but to the country.
At its root is a twenty-five-member, independent citizens' oversight committee with representation from every incorporated city and town in the region as well as the Native American nations.
Part of what makes this structure unique is that while many jurisdictions ask voters to support bond projects strictly within their own jurisdictional boundaries, the Pima County Bond Advisory Committee takes an inclusive approach that ensures projects ultimately selected for voter approval cut across geographic boundaries and zip codes.
Potential bond projects are weighed based on public benefit, regardless of whether they fall within cities, tribal areas, or the unincorporated county. In 2004, for example, projects were measured based on four criteria, including whether they:
1. Provided a direct public benefit rather than indirect administrative support.
2. Increased park access for youth and underserved populations.
3. Utilized property already owned by the county.
4. Took advantage of other financing sources that could supplement the bond program spending.
This approach helps ensure support from a diverse cross-section of the community and makes sure no area is left out.
In preparation for a potential bond election in 2014, for example, the Bond Advisory Committee has held more than thirty public meetings in the past four years, with an additional fifty subcommittee meetings, as it works to develop that future plan for presentation to the voters. Thousands of citizens have weighed in on the infrastructure needs they have seen across the community.
The committee's work doesn't just end once a project list is finalized to take to voters. Importantly, the structure also provides voters assurance that there are adequate checks and balances in place as well as stringent citizen oversight once projects are authorized.
In regular public meetings, the committee keeps project-by-project tabs on the progress of the bond program. Committee members also must consider any proposed changes in timing or cost of a project and provide recommendations to the Board of Supervisors. Any subsequent action by the board must similarly be considered in an open, public meeting. And if the project rests within an incorporated city or town, that jurisdiction's city or town council must weigh in on any substantial change to the project's scope, cost, or timing.
Pima County has found that this process, far from being onerous, has helped ensure the effective management of projects.
It is no small task to manage programs of this magnitude. Consider the complexities that can exist with bringing just one construction project to fruition--and then consider that Pima County has completed 515 projects from the last three bond authorizations.
In all, voters have authorized nearly $900 million in capital improvements, dating to the 1997 election sixteen years ago. In part because of the confidence inspired by this structure, voters have responded positively to our requests for greater investment.
Since 1974, there have been a total of thirty-eight specific ballot questions asking voters to authorize the county to sell general obligation bonds. All but three of the questions were approved by voters, equating to a 92 percent approval rating.
Voters don't just have to take the county's assurance that the program is well managed. A recent, extensive six-month audit of the bond programs from 1997, 2004, and 2006 by the State of Arizona's auditor general determined that the monies have been spent as authorized.
The auditor general also determined that Pima County worked cooperatively with its neighbors and that local areas received benefits in rough approximation to taxes paid. Of the 515 completed projects, for example, 337 were determined to primarily benefit citizens within a specific area or jurisdiction. The remaining 178 projects had a more county-wide focus, such as a new behavioral health facility, new juvenile court amenities, and modernizations for the superior court.
Citizens in the unincorporated area paid 43 percent of the debt repayment and saw an estimated 35 percent of the benefit, while citizens in the more urbanized City of Tucson, for example, paid 43 percent of the debt and received more than 50 percent of the direct benefit.
Auditors were unable to find a similar structure in the state of Arizona, or for that matter, elsewhere in the nation.
It is not uncommon for local governments to approve the formation of citizens' committees to oversee bond construction projects and to consider long-range needs. Those committees, however, tend to be smaller in scope. In some communities, the general obligation bond programs have only a few big-ticket items within their own jurisdictions, as opposed to a list suggesting numerous improvements. Smaller bond packages render an advisory board less vital in finalizing a package or providing oversight as the projects come to fruition.
In other communities, when county bond authorizations help fund improvements in nearby incorporated areas, the county turns the funds over to those individual jurisdictions, which then handle their own project management. It is rare for advisory committees to provide oversight of hundreds of bond projects while coordinating those projects across multiple jurisdictions.
Pima County's model is one that is easily emulated or modified--even for communities with smaller bond programs--and will pay dividends in securing credibility in the community.
Pima County's bond program has created or sustained more than 12,000 jobs to date and has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy at a time of a stubborn economic downturn when those resources were sorely needed.
As a result of our bond investments, Pima County has been able to build vital public health facilities, implement a regional public safety communications system, protect open space, and provide recreational facilities for our residents.
Pima County takes voter trust seriously and owes a debt of gratitude to the citizens who serve so diligently and who ensure the accountability of this program. The county stands ready to share this model with any interested communities who are seeking ways to strengthen accountability, transparency, and oversight.
Chuck Huckelberry is Pima County administrator.