Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Rio Nuevo Debacle

Rio Nuevo Rundown

The issue of management must be addressed when considering the decisions made by the Rio Nuevo Board and the Tucson City Council and Mayor as of the TIF time period from inception to Q4 2010.

As of 2010, $230,000,000 was spent: $156,682,160 was spent as mostly borrowed cash on capital projects, of which most are grossly incomplete and another $70,000,000 was blown on other 'costs'. Future money was encumbered at an average interest of close to 50%, cutting in half the material value of the dollars invested in jobs and projects.

In 2010, Rio Nuevo spent over $15,000,000 on debt service of which $6,200,000 went for interest on five debts incurred by Rio Nuevo and passed by the City Council. The TIF revenue of $9,322,000 did not cover this payment. This huge debt payment is not covered by the total revenues of $13,000,000, even though the income from the TCC is also encumbered. Reserves of borrowed money are being used to make up the difference.

Using this train of fact, perhaps it is time to question the decision making that occurred that produced this unfortunate situation. The individuals involved were quite interested in possessing borrowed cash to pay out. They were so motivated to get the cash; they agreed that taxpayers would pay 50% interest. This reduces the value of the tax dollar by half. The moneylenders get half and the Rio Nuevo handlers get half and the taxpayers get to pay for it. Is this mismanagement?

I know the scheme was that the boom would be endless and properties would continue to escalate and the tax money would continue to flow and grow. Debts would be smaller because of increased value in equity. Instead, a recession intervened and closed the party down. Property is down only 40% if you're lucky and commercial and housing sits empty. Tucson is not booming. Tucson just turned down a tax hike for the city. Tucson has a history of real estate booms and busts. Was I the only one in town who knew this?

Poor decisions and a recession that was foreseeable by many of the cautious has put Tucson in the category of the family who just bought a new car and home and then lost their jobs. Default, anyone?

But it's not just the borrowing and spending, it's the way the cash was spent. According to the Rio Nuevo audit, the Rio Nuevo handlers played fast and loose like a sailor on shore leave with a pocket of cash. Evidently no spending plan existed beyond borrowing the future proceeds of the TIF and TCC and setting up payment plans. No attempt was made to pay for work incrementally. Everybody dreamed big but not in enough detail to actually fund most projects that were begun. Evidently, the spending was dictated by whim or friendship, instead of what could be afforded. Rio Nuevo would now need $449,530,501 and more to complete the projects they began.

This scattershot approach resulted in millions of dollars wasted. I call this mismanagement. Even if the recession had not intervened, it would have been difficult to raise enough money to finish what they started. Looney tunes seems rational compared to this.

The Rio Nuevo audit revealed that few projects were actually completed. The Fox Theater restoration was completed but the operation of the theater is not profitable. The 'Presidio' generates no income. That brings me to another consideration. Apparently the TIF spending was supposed to be an economic stimulus. Projects should be revenue generating. Projects should not be infrastructure or housing. This was not a 'living space' project where housing is created and tenants pay rent and buy needs from area stores which generates tax revenues. The Rio Nuevo was supposed to be a new arena/stadium that held important big events, raised the cultural opportunities of locals and generated fat tax revenue. However, instead of focusing on the big event facility, a series of other derailments took place, with the money going to a hokey film and other frivolities that did nothing to create revenue. The tacking on of a glassy entrance to TCC did nothing to enhance revenue but did result in a substantial debt was a bad business decision. Architects collected millions in tax money. How about paying architects as the project is built, on an incremental basis? If the structure is not built, no payee to architect. We have been taken to the cleaners. We have no new arena nor do we have a world class museum, but we now have cash happy architects and outlandish designs and an out of state filmmaker has $800,000 in tax money. Is this mismanagement?

What happened to the bid process required by law? Why was this Rio Nuevo video not put out to bid? The city and Rio Nuevo paid the bills for this film so it should have been put out for bid. If the bid process was violated, the city charter says that those responsible will be removed from office. If more laws were violated, this should come to light. It has been suggested by the Rio Nuevo Audit that the payments to the U of A were in violation of state law. Legal problems, subverting the bidding process required by law, and lack of progress point to mismanagement. The bidding process for all spending needs to be documented.

The city matching funds projects for Rio Nuevo were transportation projects, some of which seemed that there was a bond issue for some time ago. What are the cost overruns on these transportation projects? Did these matching funds projects bring in revenue to the TIF? I know the premise is that good streets generate business but did this happen? What was allowable for matching funds? The Martin Luther King housing units downtown have been eating money but generating nothing after the tenants were ousted. The debt level will ensure the rents remain high.

The modern streetcar that lacks funding has already consumed millions in Rio Nuevo 'matching funds' , another fiasco designed to need a city subsidy to operate. Already deep into transit deficit spending to set up a situation projected to require a subsidy to operate is the ultimate foolishness. As for the streetcar projects, most of them take place out of state employing workers building streetcars while Arizona's unemployment rate remains high. If the Federal funding requires that our community export jobs, then perhaps this type of funding is simply too expensive for Arizona.

The new Rio Nuevo Board has been hiring lawyers and now wants to hire employees, even though Rio Nuevo is in deficit spending. I suggest this board nominate and elect one of their own to be treasurer. I also suggest that those with financial interests in the defunct hotel project resign over a conflict of interest. As a community, we need fresh ideas on the board and we also need a board that is willing to work in a transparent manner and one that is willing to work to salvage what is left of Rio Nuevo. We have from 2011 to 2025 to work towards solvency and material achievement. A hiring freeze is in effect, isn't it?

This bum on the street corner now wants you to buy him a new car when he's flat broke. Tell him no. Tell him to get busy and do the job as Rio Nuevo Board, instead of just claiming dubious prestige for the title.

The pattern of disorganized and whimsical spending without a reasonable budget for accomplishing material gain in the form of an arena or expanded TCC or even a viable project to generate revenue was an outstanding example of mismanagement that needs a full investigation. The gambler who is forever optimistic just continues on and on until he is bankrupt.

I say it is time for the gambler to fade away and a fiscal conservative to take his place.


Rob O'dell wrote an interesting factual article on Rio Nuevo and the hiring of lawyers and what they were paid out of tax money:

Joe Higgens and Chris DeSimone wrote a good opinion piece on the Rio Nuevo Audit: