In this year's proposed capital budget, Mayor Chavez wanted a few million bucks included for a panda exhibit (a.k.a. Asian Experience) at the Rio Grande Zoo and other improvements at the BioPark, but five city councilors objected, preferring that the city spend those taxpayer funds on ye olde basic services, such as sidewalk, sewage and intersection repairs.
Chavez, not to be denied, decided to play political hardball. First, he persuaded Gov. Richardson to throw $1.5 million in state capital funds into the city treasury for the panda. Then, last Friday, Chavez announced he would veto a few of those basic service items in the bond proposal that two of the opposing city councilors, Debbie O'Malley and Brad Winter, coveted.
Chavez spiked $7.2 million that was earmarked for a community center in Winter's Northeast Heights district. According to news reports, the mayor admitted his line-item veto was retaliation for Winter's lack of support for the BioPark improvements. Winter, of course, is also challenging Chavez in the mayoral election this year.
Chavez also vetoed $750,000 earmarked for street improvements in the Wells Park and Sawmill neighborhoods, which are in O'Malley's district.
Here's the rub: both of those projects were listed in Chavez' original budget proposal sent to the Council several weeks ago. So when the mayor didn't get support for the panda and BioPark, he actually vetoed his own budget proposal. “It was personal,” said O'Malley. “It's pretty transparent.”
The Council can still override the mayor's line-item vetoes when it reconvenes on Aug. 1. Meanwhile, here's what a few councilors had to say last week about capital fund negotiations thus far.
Michael Cadigan: "A lot of the changes the Council made are masquerading as basic services, but they are really just feathering people's nests and trying to move money away from the zoo and aquarium. Pandas are an ambitious acquisition, but I don't understand the difference between the Asian Experience exhibit and the African exhibit [that currently exists]. The panda exhibit does have economic development potential. Our zoo generates a tremendous amount of tourist traffic.
There are huge swaths of the zoo that are incomplete. Are we going to continue to improve it? For all the claims of basic services, the zoo is important to a lot of people and is worth funding.
The Great Streets Program, nobody can explain what it is. It's a gigantic amount of capital dumped into this amorphous program, supposed to improve intersections, make pedestrian improvements and the like. The reason I couldn't support it was because the idea hasn't been fully thought out.”
Eric Griego: “Marty Chavez thinks the panda and election year projects are going to help him with his target voters. He's going for election year publicity instead of solving problems for the city. It's hard to get people jazzed up about fixing sidewalks, but that's our job. The five of us tried to move money into basic services. We don't even have that good a shot of getting a panda. It's Marty's wild goose chase, like the Downtown arena he was going to get built with no public money involved—it was a boondoggle. He doesn't make a decision for the long-term economic benefit of the city. He wanted taxpayers to spend a couple million dollars on a panda we don't know if we can get, and if you walk a couple blocks from the zoo what you find is a bunch of crumbling sidewalks. It's about quality of life and how livable your city is. It's about people wanting to invest here and stay here after they go to college. We need to invest in the basics of our city, making it more walkable, more beautiful, improve transportation and community centers. That's the kind of stuff that makes your city more livable, not these headline-grabbing election year projects that aren't realistic.”
Sally Mayer: “Our bond package should be balanced. I believe the mayor's package was balanced. There is lots of money in there for roads and sidewalks and medians. I think amendments that take away from revenue generating projects like the panda and Balloon Fiesta Park is very shortsighted. They bring in tourist dollars which are pure, uncirculated additions to our economy. When you have somebody from Clovis come in and spend $1,000, that's 1,000 new dollars. That's why it's so important to maintain balance in our bond program. If the public thinks the panda is a waste of money, they could have voted it down. But they've never voted down a zoo issue, ever. I would love to landscape every median in my district today, but we also have to look at what's good for the city. We're getting things done, which is what's important, but everybody has to be a little patient.”
Debbie O'Malley: "We really worked hard to get money into the Great Streets Program, and I happen to think taking care of your streets encourages private investment and long-term economic development. The mayor says a panda is economic development. I'm sick and tired of hearing that. We need to reinvest in our neighborhoods. If we are depending on a zoo for economic development, I think we are in trouble. That's crazy in my opinion.
This administration irritates the crap out of me. The mayor wants to get rid of future resources and neglect the older parts of the city. The backlog for capital improvements on declining infrastructure is horrendous. We've got water piping that was installed after World War II—miles of it! We haven't taken care of a lot of stuff. I'm trying to fix infrastructure that is falling apart. When I go to a city, I pay attention to see if things are well kept. That's what brings in convention business and investment. I would like to say: prove the panda is good for economic development. Has anyone done an analysis [to see] if we can afford [the annual upkeep for] a panda? Not that I know of."