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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Phoenix Parks and Investment

While I was at a social function the other night, I heard something from one of our more public-minded citizens that almost led me to throw my drink glass against the wall. Now of course I didn't because not only would I not be able to finish my portion of the brownest of the brown liquors that was in said glass but my wife might be upset at my antics. Now wife is the wisest of creatures because sure enough after I finished my bourbon I had calmed down to the point where I could think about what my fellow citizen said.

His comment was that a vote for yes on Phoenix's Proposition A which would extend the existing 0.1 cent sales tax for public parks would be an "investment" in our community. Now I have written before on the use and abuse of the term "investment" to justify public spending but I find the use here by many Prop A supporters to be especially infuriating.

First I have to say that I find Phoenix's parks and mountain preserves, which will be supported by Prop A, to be a great civic treasure. Not only are the mountain preserves with their central urban location a great visual landmark, but the hiking in them is superb. However the issue here is "invest" and not necessarily "support." I understand using sales tax monies to fund parks is a different form of investment than say in transportation or education where those enhanced programs are expected to provide in part some sort of an economic return but the focus here is on the methodology of investment and not the exact form of the return on investment.

If you as a private citizen were approached by someone looking for you to invest in their venture you will want to have some questions answered before you whip out the checkbook. If the person who approaches you has a brain, they probably will anticipate some of those questions ahead of time things like their track record in using capital for previous investments, assurances such as the use of custodians or auditors to ensure that your money will be going to where it should and not say the Grand Caymans.

So here are my questions regarding Prop A that I have yet to have answered.

1) Prop A involves an extension of a 10-year old sales tax that has generated somewhere on the order of $200 million. How has that $200 million been spent?

2) There is an official Parks and Preserve Initiative Oversight Committee that "was created to annually review the expenditures of the Phoenix Parks and Preserve Initiative Program for conformance to the September, 1999 Ballot." I have searched through the official city records online and cannot find any copies of the Committee's annual reviews or any discussion of them by either the City Council or the Parks Board. I would venture to guess that those reviews would provide alot of insight into how well that $200 million was monitored and spent so where are they?

3) The ballot language states that "Funds raised from this initiative shall only be used for Phoenix parks and preserves." However in a later paragraph the language states that funds will be used to "... add shaded pedestrian and bike paths throughout the city." I assume those paths will be along the side of or within city streets so how do those expenditures square with "...only be used for Phoenix parks and preserves"?

Now I have been accused of overly parsing language so you will be happy to know that I am ignoring a similar clause that the funds will be used to "...add recreation programs for youth to fight drugs, gangs, and crime."

However I love the term "for youth to fight..." It's like the City will be creating a junior association of the Justice League where kids will be organized to fight the bad guys. I cannot wait to tell my 8 year old to get out his Ninja costume from last Halloween and report to the local park so he can go fight the Crips and Wedgewood Chicanos.

You didn't see it that way? Oh come one... have a few drinks and then go look again.

4) Look at the front page of the today's Phoenix section of the Arizona Republic. All three stories deal with either Prop A or the fact that the City is cutting youth recreation programs, the very programs that Prop A will support. Keep in mind that when a government entity cuts one program, it is implicitly deciding to spare another program either deeper cuts or any cuts at all. If Phoenix is cutting Parks & Recreation, that means somebody is being spared deeper cuts.

So this brings up the question of displacement. Yes Phoenix is in a deep budget crisis but the conventional wisdom is that good fiscal times will return and the opportunity will come to restore the youth recreation programs. Will the City restore the cuts out of general revenues or will consider them restored by Prop A?

5) Why is the program being extended for another 30 years instead of for another10? Wouldn't there be better oversight if the issue is returned to the voters on a more frequent basis.

Keep in mind that the answers to questions 1 and 2 are already available in some format. Somewhere, someone has copies of the annual reviews produced by the Oversight Committee. Also someone (presumably the Oversight Committee) has the numbers in some format of what has been raised by the sales tax and what it has been used on. Yet it is only publicaly available in the sense that I drive down to the City during business hours and request them.