The Desert "Distraction" Center

It's approaching two years that the non-stop noise surrounding the Desert Discovery Center has droned on and drowned out almost everything else.

The negativity has gone viral.    

Good people have been the target of character assassinations. City Council members have had their integrity impugned. Name-calling is now normal and finger-pointing commonplace.  Hostility has reached new heights ... or depths, depending on perspective.   

Consequently, politics are impacting policies.

One of the most egregious examples is the language for increasing the sales tax proposal that will appear on the November ballot.  Voters will be assured that if they approve a 0.10% sales tax increase for transportation projects: IN NO EVENT SHALL SUCH FUNDS BE USED FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF A DESERT DISCOVERY CENTER OR FOR THE CONSTRUCTION OF ANY IMPROVEMENTS IN THE MCDOWELL SONORAN PRESERVE.

The description of the proposal is the first time in recent memory that ballot language has spelled out what funds from a voter-approved proposal can NOT be used for.

By including this peculiar and unprecedented language, the City of Scottsdale is breaking new ground - and possibly digging itself a hole for future elections.  But for now, we at least know that the bureaucrats can be bullied into bastardizing an election ballot.

Meanwhile ... people with their hair on fire over the Desert Discovery Center/Desert EDGE have helped push other important issues to the back burner.

For years, Councilman David Smith has been telling anyone who will listen that the city's infrastructure is degrading at the rate of $100 million a year.  Currently, the city estimates there are $800 million in restoration and replacement projects that should be addressed.  Smith's warnings fell on deaf ears at the polls in 2013 and 2015.  The majority of his colleagues on the City Council have also been reluctant to heed his caution about deteriorating infrastructure.   

Councilmembers say they will "consider" placing a bond proposal on the ballot in 2019 when the cost of catching up on infrastructure projects will probably be pushing $1 billion.  It would be hard to refute someone who says:  "We'll believe it when we see it." After all, this is a council that can't agree on what time it is let alone reach a consensus on something as important as a bond proposal.

The DDC/Desert EDGE isn't just dominating the political discussion ... it's also distracting the City Council and citizens from a dialogue about other critical issues like the funding for the renovations being required of Scottsdale Stadium, maintenance of Indian Bend Wash and enhancing the environment on and around the most traveled banks of our canal system.  Other issues worthy of discussion include how to finally achieve full staffing of the Fire Department to control costly overtime issues, continuing to coordinate the economic evolution of downtown and maintaining the momentum to revitalize the McDowell Road Corridor.  

There's plenty to talk about besides DDC/Desert EDGE.

Politics Are Getting Personal

During the last nine years, the Voice of Scottsdale has received thousands of emails.  Some have been good and some have been bad.

After the last column on May 22nd titled "Businesses Buying Off On Phillips' Tax Increase Idea," we received an especially poignant email.  We believe it's worth sharing with readers in its entirety because of its unique opinion about our city's current political environment.

The author asked to remain anonymous.

"I first subscribed to your publication in 2010 or 2011.  Not sure, only that it has been quite a while that I've been reading the 'Voice of Scottsdale.' Depending on the topic, I share it with my friends.  I'll also show it to a couple of my co-workers from time to time.  It's always a conversation starter over lunch or around the coffee machine at the office.

"The blog about the sales tax really stirred us, particularly near the end when you wondered what would have happened if Linda Milhaven had suggested raising the rate of the sales tax rather than Guy Phillips.  It's really an intriguing question.  We ended up agreeing that if Councilwoman Milhaven had proposed it, it probably would have been dead on arrival, so to speak.  

"But why, then, is it okay with Phillips' supporters who normally would be up in arms about any kind of tax increase?

"It's easy to jump to the conclusion that Phillips' supporters are hypocrites.  But it may not be that simple.  We hashed it out and concluded that our city's politics are beginning to revolve less around policies.  Instead, it's starting to be more about personalities.

"Speaking only for myself, I think these 'new politics' are bad for Scottsdale.

"Thank you for listening."

In political-speak, the author of the email was saying it's no longer about the "message," it's becoming about the "messenger."

Will establishing public policy simply become a by-product of a political popularity contest in which citizens line up behind their favorite councilpersons or opinion leaders like lemmings, no matter what the issue?

Some of the old issues still persist like height and density, apartments and traffic.  However, citizens are now being polarized by other issues as well -- including the DDC/Desert Edge, raising the sales tax and managing the growth and marketing of the downtown area.

There's no question that the city's sharp political division has been an incubator for distrust.  That has created an "us against them" mentality that's dominating the debate on nearly every issue.  Facts no longer matter.  Truth gets twisted.  Innuendo overrides intelligent opinion. And political consensus is often organized around crazy conspiracy theories.

As a consequence, Scottsdale politics are being personalized.    

Ironically, some of those who like to rail about the lack of trust are actually exploiting it by capitalizing on their followers' blind faith in them.

Businesses Buying Off On Phillips' Tax Increase Idea

Suzanne Klapp tweaked it. Kathy Littlefield embraced it. Jim Lane gave it his blessing. But it was Guy Phillips who originally proposed it.
Depending on political perspective, Councilman Phillips either deserves the credit or the criticism for proposing the issue that will be on the November 6th election ballot: raising the city's sales tax rate.
Phillips served on the Capital Improvement Plan Subcommittee with Councilmembers Virginia Korte and David Smith. During all of 2017, the three studied the best way to fund $350 million of repairs to some of the city's failing infrastructure.
Before being appointed to the subcommittee by Mayor Lane, Korte and Smith had leaned toward using general obligation bonds to address infrastructure needs. Phillips, on the other hand, favored increasing the sales tax. After 12 months of weighing input from support staff, various city departments and City Treasurer Jeff Nichols, Korte and Smith steadfastly supported the bonds option and Phillips still proposed raising the sales tax.
Phillips' proposal wasn't taken seriously. After all, according to City Manager Jim Thompson, increasing the sales tax rate wouldn't come close to funding the 90 infrastructure projects that are needed. Raising taxes in Scottsdale has typically been a non-starter. Besides, even the mere mention of raising the sales tax rate would be crushed by the business community.
Proposing to increase the sales tax made no sense ... so why bother?
Phillips, a two-term councilman, has had an estranged relationship with the business community since he emerged on the political scene. In fact, during his 2012 council campaign, it was the business community, with encouragement from the mayor, that spent tens of thousands of dollars trying unsuccessfully to defeat Phillips.
Now, Lane, Klapp and Littlefield have fallen in line behind Phillips to raise the sales tax rate. Councilmembers Korte, Smith and Linda Milhaven oppose Phillips' proposal and instead favor using general obligation bonds to fund infrastructure projects. They say that employing bonds would have been more fiscally responsible. The three add that bonds wouldn't have raised taxes because they would have replaced previous bonds that are expiring. The new bonds would also have been designated for specific projects, making them more transparent than a sales tax increase for unidentified projects.
So far, the business community has been mute.
The Chamber of Commerce not only didn't try to block putting Phillips' sales tax proposal on the ballot, the organization hasn't even taken a public position on it. Likewise for the Chamber's junior varsity team, SCOTT (Scottsdale of Today and Tomorrow), which is funded by the who's who of the business community.
Even more stunning is that Old Town business owners, whose businesses would be impacted by a sales tax hike, are, by their very silence, supporting the tax increase. The gallery association hasn't spoken up. Neither has gallery owner Bob Pejman, a political gadfly in the downtown area. Their silence raises suspicions.
For instance ... imagine the reaction from downtown merchants if it had been Councilwoman Linda Milhaven who had proposed raising the sales tax rate. They would be going stark raving mad.
It now looks like Guy Phillips and the business community have finally
buried the hatchet and will be working hand in hand, to of all things ... raise taxes.

Is Scottsdale Becoming Less Special?

People come and go ... but our city's institutions remain.
However, Scottsdale's institutional pillars are crumbling. Regrettably, many civic organizations are losing relevance because of their failure to recognize the community is changing and their resistance to adapt accordingly.
It's a trend that should give citizens cause for concern.
Obviously, the most glaring example of the institutional erosion is the Scottsdale Unified School District. SUSD leadership has allowed the school district to be turned into a second-rate reality TV show that features perp walks and humiliating revelations about cover ups of corruption. The embarrassing ineptitude is expected to continue until the current members of the School Board have been replaced, which will take years.
The more things change at Scottsdale Arts, the more they remain the same.  
A new CEO/president of the organization has been in charge for almost two months. Three directors of various departments have been given the heave-ho and have been temporarily replaced. While the organization is in transition, the same people remain on the Executive Board and the Board of Trustees. For all intents and purposes they are the ones who, for years, have been making decisions about the direction of the organization.
The decision makers, the majority of whom are Baby Boomers, have been satisfied to maintain the status quo. The long in the tooth group is short on creativity and are thought to be out of touch with the arts community - which has made luring a new generation into the organization challenging.
Meanwhile, the Chamber of Commerce has some of the same issues as Scottsdale Arts.
For years, the Chamber had been wrestling with how to be relevant when Mark Hiegel was hired to head the organization about two years ago. He brought energy and enthusiasm that finally propelled the Chamber onto the right path. Then, last fall under undisclosed circumstances, the organization's Executive Board encouraged him to resign. Mark Stanton was hired to replace Hiegel two weeks ago. But the same problems persist that have plagued the Chamber's decision making for years.
The most recent example was last week when the City Council voted to place raising the sales tax rate on the November election ballot. Surprisingly, the Chamber sat on the sidelines. The organization that's supposed to be advocating for the best interests of business was AWOL because of the Executive Board's indecisiveness.
And that issue leads to the City Council, where political division and personal distemper are becoming a mirror image of what's happening in the community.  
The latest showdown occurred last week when councilmembers clashed over the most practical way to start funding $800 million of improvements to the city's infrastructure. By a 4-3 vote, those who favored increasing the sales tax won out.   But there were deeper political implications, the kind that leave hurt feelings and bruised egos.
Consensus building on the City Council seems like a thing of the past and, as a result, only adding to the contentious political conditions sweeping the city.
Sadly, as vital institutional pillars of the community are breaking down, Scottsdale is slowly becoming less special.