You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.
By Sedona City Councilor Barbara Litrell and Vice Mayor Cliff Hamilton
Sedona, AZ (October 24, 2011) – Robert Larson, owner of the Red Rock News, filled his October 21 editorial with unfounded generalities, misstatements and twisted facts. As the only printed news source in town, the Red Rock News would better serve the residents if it used accurate information in the right context. If we didn’t hope for better we would think the opponents of Prop 410 wrote the editorial, or Larson simply used the misinformation in their ads and made them his facts! Below in this open letter to Robert Larson is his editorial evaluated sentence by sentence with our comments underneath each statement.
Dear Mr. Larson,
You filled your October 21 editorial with unfounded generalities, misstatements and twisted facts. As the only printed news source in town, the Red Rock News would better serve the residents if it used accurate information in the right context. If we didn’t hope for better we would think the opponents of Prop 410 wrote the editorial, or you simply used the misinformation in their ads and made them your facts! Below in this open letter is your editorial evaluated sentence by sentence with our comments underneath each statement. We would be happy to discuss the information in this letter in person.
Larson: It is really all about the money when it comes to your decision regarding the takeover of SR89A.
Money is one element of the decision but, there are other important considerations as well. With appropriate financial support from ADOT (they had offered $10.6 million cash upfront plus $5 million in projects) and identified future funds from city revenue streams making ownership affordable, the benefits of owning our main street becomes the important consideration. These advantages include installation of attractive 24-hour safety measures, a long term development plan for the 89A Corridor to make it a more attractive area, an enormous advantage to businesses when the city owns the 32 ft right-of-way on either side of the highway, city control of signage, landscaping, and access management. All these become important to creating what the Corridor could and should be if the city has local control. If you attend any of the community planning meetings, you will hear what the community wants – a safer, more attractive 89A that welcomes visitors and enriches the businesses and the neighborhoods of West Sedona.
Larson: The city of Sedona taking ownership of a state highway in West Sedona would be a major financial mistake.
In your office last February, just before the Council voted on the transfer, you said to Barbara Litrell that if ADOT gave us $10.6 million in cash upfront, we’d be set for 30 years! Why is it now a financial mistake? With the money safely in a restricted account to manage the road and make improvements based on an established budget, the money we currently spend to maintain the road becomes available for other projects and the city does not have to put up city matching funds as ADOT ownership often requires. Funds provided by ADOT would meet the management, operations and improvement needs for the next 15 years or more.
Larson: It is impossible to project exactly how much it would cost the city to own a major state highway, and now isn’t the time to take financial risks.
W89A functions as a local city street, not a state highway, as evidenced by the fact that the city currently pays half the annual maintenance costs (about $35,000) and has for many years. If 89A were truly functioning as a state highway, ADOT would be paying for all of it and maintaining it, too. The cost of maintaining and operating 89A is a well-known amount. We can also project, based on history, that about every 15 years the road needs a resurfacing. It won’t be a surprise in 2026 or 2027 that the road needs resurfacing. The current estimate for the upcoming resurfacing is about $3 million. In the contract negotiated with ADOT, they provided $3.2 million for the next resurfacing in 15 years. Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past in turning down Federal funding to begin sewering the city or the APS offer to help underground power lines along 89A. Let’s recognize a good deal when we see one and take the opportunity to move forward rather than be paralyzed with fear.
Larson: On the verge of what some say could be the second dip into recession, biting off a multi-million dollar project with no end in sight and more staff needed to manage the project would not be “fiscally responsible” as candidates for Sedona City Council – including those currently seated – always claim is their goal.
“Fiscally responsible” means having a balanced budget, a long term view of the expenses and revenue sources and a plan for meeting the city’s needs. Sedona has all of these. Sedona came thru the recession in excellent shape. Despite everything, the city had a $1.6 million surplus for the fiscal year ended June 30. The prior year, in the midst of the recession, we had a $750,000 surplus. And the General Fund currently has over 100% reserve to budget ratio. At the same time the city continues to fund drainage, sewer and street paving projects plus support for the arts and other non-profits. While the message is mixed about state and national economic indicators, the City Manager and staff have managed Sedona revenue streams and expenses in exemplary fashion. “Fiscally responsible” means using funds wisely, not locking up the piggy bank! Instead of sending out a “Sky is Falling” message, Mr. Larson, you should be encouraging ongoing investment in our community to ensure a sound future for residents, businesses and visitors. Local control of 89A is such an investment.
Larson: Many of the roads the city currently owns need attention. This needs to happen before adding miles of highway to the equation should even be considered, not to mention other high-priority or absolutely necessary projects to be funded, such as fixing our drainage issues.
What city roads need attention? Your generality begs specifics. Perhaps you are unaware that Sedona has a regular ongoing repaving program for all Sedona streets that is planned as a 5-year program. Citizens can find out if their street is scheduled for repaving in the next 5years by calling the city. Routine repairs also get done quickly by notifying the city of a need. Perhaps you are also unaware that the city has a 15 year master drainage plan and is spending about $1.7 million this year on drainage. The drainage plan is currently being reviewed and updated. You may also not realize that many streets in the city are privately owned – and thus not maintained by the city – and may indeed be in need of repair.
Larson: If the city can’t afford routine maintenance on Sedona’s side streets, how will it pay to maintain a roadway used not only by residents but by the thousands of tourists who visit Sedona each year?
Again it would be meaningful if you cited what evidence you have that the city is not able to afford routine maintenance. It seems you are also unaware that the city has an annual contract with a local firm to do routine maintenance and repair of streets, sidewalks, and city parking areas. As noted above, the city has a routine repaving program which is funded annually. As you acknowledged in your February conversation with Barbara Litrell, maintenance of 89A would be well covered for perhaps 30 years by the funding package ADOT offered, leaving the $35,000 the City currently shares in maintenance costs with ADOT for other projects.
Larson: Add to the equation a stripped-down staff and other expenses surface. The city engineer currently serves as the head of the public works department and oversees wastewater treatment operations for the city. Will he also be responsible for SR89A? Or, more likely, will he have to hire staff to help him? And who will do the actual work on the road? Will the city contract out all the work – filling potholes and cracks, resurfacing, maintaining sidewalks, clearing debris off the roadway including snow? Or would the city buy heavy machinery to do the jobs in-house? Either way, it’s going to be very expensive.
The Public Works Department has 27 employees and the Director currently oversees wastewater, drainage, streets, sidewalks and other city construction and maintenance projects. Owning our main street would not change that. The city currently maintains 106 miles of local streets; adding 4.8 miles of 89A is a small percentage of that. Sedona already does the routine maintenance, snow removal and sidewalk repairs. Many Sedona residents are apparently unaware of the city’s current role on 89A. Apparently you thought that ADOT was doing that. Sedona, like ADOT, contracts out much of its road maintenance. Brewer Bros. currently is under contract to the city for those services. There would be no effect on staff size by assuming control of 89A and the purchase of heavy equipment is totally unnecessary.
Larson: Now, we ask those in favor of taking over the road, how will the city pay for all of this? Over the past few years the city cut staff and programs because it collected less sales tax than in years past.
Again, we ask you to recall the February conversation with Barbara Litrell when you acknowledged that ADOT’s $10.6 million cash upfront offer would set us up for the next 30 years. Actually, ADOT offered us enough money to handle 89A for full maintenance of the road for 15 years; additional money was also included to assist with repaving the road 15 years from now. So why are we asking how the city would pay for it? The ADOT funding should be sufficient but, if not, nearly $10 million a year will be freed up for other projects over the next 16 years when the bond debt is paid off and the wastewater system is more self-sustaining. One year of that is enough to cover road expenses for the next 10 years.
Larson: Eventually the city will need lots of money if it takes over ownership of SR89A. A higher sales tax won’t be the answer. With a combined city, county and state sales tax of over 10 percent in the city, raising the sales tax is out of the question. Do these road advocates also condone a city property tax to pay for their desires?
With an ADOT financial package that you yourself acknowledged could last Sedona for 30 years, it’s surprising that you ask these questions. Surely you are aware that city property tax has to be approved by the voters. $6 million will be freed up for the general fund after the sewer bond debt is paid and the $3-4 million per year that will be accrued to the general fund as the wastewater treatment system becomes more self-sustaining will both be new revenue options if needed. But again, 15 years is an adequate time to plan for future funding issues even without the up to $10 million extra cited above. Keep in mind, too, that the overall city budget is about $30 million a year which, over a 20 year period, adds to $600-700 million. The cost of adding 89A to the over 100 miles of roads we already have is a very small part of the overall expenses for the city. The benefits of local control or our main street far outweigh the costs of ownership. And we haven’t even included the possibility of increased sales tax revenues from businesses that will thrive in an upgraded West Sedona corridor. The economy in West Sedona has been sliding for years because many tourists don’t go past Soldiers Pass Road due to the unattractive nature of the area.
Larson: The bottom line is the city can’t afford the roadway, period.
The bottom line is, in fact, that the city can’t afford NOT to own our own main street.
Larson: Even if it could, it would be the most financially irresponsible decision made since the incorporation of Sedona.
Are you still fighting the decision Sedona made to incorporate 23 years ago? Surely you don’t think Sedona should still be subject to the whims of two different counties who have other priorities. Who can imagine the city not controlling its own destiny?
Larson: The city has over $60 million in bond debt that will not retire for 20 years. Add to that more than $25 million in critical infrastructure projects, which is just over half of the $40 million needed for all identified capital projects.
All your statements here are false. The city has less than $60 million in bond debt and it will be retired in 16 years, not 20. As far as the $25 million in critical infrastructure projects, your implication is an insult to our city staff. Sedona never had a capital projects plan prior to last year. The city staff expended a major effort to establish one for the first time ever, looking 5 years out. It totals about $25 Million over that 5 year period and includes such items as a Parks and Recreation Master Plan, the Barbara Antonsen Pavilion and publicly-available wi-fi at city hall. Hardly critical infrastructure projects. This long range capital plan allows the city to be proactive. The plan is funded each year by the General Fund. Your comments diminish the staff’s commendable effort to create the first long range capital improvement program in Sedona’s history. To say these are unfunded critical projects is a gross exaggeration and distortion of the facts.
Larson: Which necessary projects will be pushed to the back burner? Who is going to tell the homeowners whose houses flood every time it rains that ownership of the highway is more important than drainage problems?
We’re sure you realize that a city manages roads, sewers, drainage, police force and other needs and services for the community. It’s about managing simultaneous priorities by having a plan for each and following it. Plus houses don’t flood every time it rains. That’s a gross misstatement like so much of the rest of your editorial. Drainage is a shared responsibility between the city and the private property owners who are responsible for maintaining drainage ways on their property. In addition to the Master Drainage Plan, the city is embarking on an education program for homeowners to help them recognize their responsibilities in drainage issues.
Larson: It’s not about street lights vs no streetlights anymore.
You’re right. It is ALL ABOUT SAFETY. 95% of our accidents happen during the day. Street lights do nothing to help. Furthermore, we should not diminish the importance of dark starry skies to Sedona residents, visitors and businesses. 108 additional streetlights with bounce back light pollution equivalent to lighting a 30-acre industrial park and will give Sedona a new, unwelcome glow that will be seen from Flagstaff and neighboring communities.
Larson: Proponents of taking ownership of the road claim Sedona will be able to do whatever it wishes with the roadway which is not true.
Where do you get such false information? The City Manager has made it clear that, if Sedona takes ownership of 89A, the city will fully control whatever happens on that street. ADOT will NOT have a say in the matter. What ADOT WILL have a say in is the requirement that the city protect the funds provided by ADOT and allocated for the road from misallocation to other projects in the city. The funds must be spent on the maintenance, operation and improvements in the West 89A corridor.
Larson: The report commissioned by the city and issued by CivTech clearly states the minimum recommended improvements are continuous raised medians, pedestrian barriers throughout the length of the medians and enhanced pedestrian crossings.
CivTech confirmed what the 89A safety panel found –that there are more effective alternatives to continuous street lights to improve safety on 89A where most of the accidents occur during the day. What Civ-Tech presented was a menu of options, not a set of requirements. It is ultimately up to the city to choose improvements through a community planning process. Cities around the country are reclaiming their streets to improve safety, walkability, beauty and commerce. The Federal Highway Administration endorses a new Complete Streets Program, (a program that recognizes the need to serve not only vehicles but pedestrians and bicyclists as well) and offers grants for related projects. This is the kind of forward thinking vision West Sedona needs. Learn more about this new approach to highways at: www.completestreets.org.
Larson: Anyone who votes to take ownership of the road can’t claim fiscal responsibility as one of their desires for the future of the city of Sedona. Committing to spending large, unknown sums of cash to prevent dark-sky-compliant lighting from saving lives is insane.
Anyone who opposes ownership of our main street ignores the real safety needs especially for our children, our seniors and our visitors, whose daytime accidents will not be helped by 108 new light poles. Anyone who opposes ownership of our main street endorses a “suicide lane” and lacks the vision for how West 89A must be redeveloped if businesses in the W89A corridor are to survive and thrive in the future. As far as dark sky compliant lighting is concerned, the International Dark sky Association promotes use of lights only where absolutely necessary and in the lowest wattage required to meet the need. Lastly IDA recommends that if lighting is absolutely needed, then use dark sky compliant fixtures . Note, only the fixture is dark sky compliant, not the lighting system which includes the pole number and height, pole spacing, bulb wattage, type of bulb, plus the reflectance off road, sidewalk and building surfaces.
West 89A is our road and what happens on it should be our choice. ADOT builds roads, people build communities.
Please give your readers the correct information. You are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.
Cliff Hamilton and Barbara Litrell
*The above statements reflect our personal opinions and not necessarily those of the City Council or City staff.