Old habits die hard. At least, that's what City Councilor Debbie O'Malley might say, who's at the forefront of a debate over whether or not the city has violated the same ordinance that was the focus of the Sunport Observation Deck scandal of 1997.
First, a little background.
The construction of two 65-foot towers, aptly named the Tricentennial Towers as they are intended to celebrate the city's big 3-0-0, has begun on Rio Grande and I-40 and is slated for completion in March 2006. The pieces of artwork, constructed from tin and steel, among other materials, are a project a couple years in the making.
As is the case with most any city art project, there are folks who favor the proposed structures, as well as those who oppose them. But in the case of this particular project, the point of contention is less one of aesthetics and more one of practicality. In other words, it's a matter of money.
When the towers were first proposed over two years ago, they came with a price tag of approximately $300,000. Over time, the cost has shifted, and today it stands at nearly three times the original estimate—$843,000 at last count.
But the price is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. According to O'Malley, the steep rise in cost is what drew attention to the towers, and now there are claims that, in order to fund the rather expensive project, the administration violated the same ordinances that came as a result of the Sunport Observation Deck scandal by failing to get Council approval for the raise and taking additional funding for the projects from inappropriate sources.
Mark Motsko, public information officer for the city's Department of Municipal Development, said the reason the cost for the project is so high is because in the last three years the cost of steel has doubled. Additionally, accoutrements to the towers, such as two large wall scones that will be located at the northeast and southwest corners of Rio Grande and I-40, were recently added, which further boosted the cost.
Nevertheless, an investigation is being led by the city's Office of Internal Audit.
For those who may be fuzzy on memory, the Sunport Observation Deck scandal happened in 1996-1997, when the city broke a number of purchasing laws, among other rules, to build an observation deck at the city airport, the Albuquerque International Sunport.
Among the policies that were broken, the city failed to put construction work for the project out for bid and neglected to get City Council approval. The case led to a grand jury investigation that nearly culminated in criminal indictments against city employees. The only thing that saved the city from criminal prosecution was a Stipulated Disposition Agreement that was signed by the city and the District Attorney's Office in 1999 that conceded the mistakes made by the city and amended the city's Purchasing Ordinance.
Amendments to the ordinance required more approval by the Council regarding such projects, stating that “sole source contracts for a single construction project over $50,000 will require prior approval of the City Council,” and “Council approval [will be required] if an amendment to a contract, originally approved by the Council, increases or decreases the total amount approved by 10% or more.”
According to O'Malley, the city has now broken amendments from the Stipulated Disposition Agreement in funding the towers, as they neglected to go to the Council to approve the funding increase. Not only that, but O'Malley said the city also took funds for the project from inappropriate sources, such as $538,714 from the Infill/Community Vitality Projects—Streets fund and $109,962 from the Infill/Community Vitality Hydrology Deficiency Projects fund.
According to the bill that enacted the funds, “These funds only may be used to correct street and hydrology deficiencies within the city which are barriers to infill/community vitality and for projects which would not have been financially feasible but for the availability of these funds.” The bill also stated that, “in order to insure that the infill projects enabled by this program enhance existing neighborhoods, the neighborhood organization for the area within which the project is located must provide a letter of support for the project.”
O'Malley said the use of the funds for the towers is inappropriate, as it has nothing to do with fixing street or hydrology deficiencies. She also said that, to date, no neighborhood letter of support has been requested by the city.
However, the city's Motsko said the problem has already been fixed, as the funding sources for the project were changed at the beginning of October from the Infill funds to a Median Enhancement fund. Motsko said this was done at the request of Mayor Martin Chavez and City Councilor Martin Heinrich, who asked that Municipal Development find more appropriate funds for the project.
At the last Council meeting on Oct. 17, when the Tricentennial Towers project was up for discussion, there was no mention of funding being changed for the project. This was despite the fact that a bill was introduced, sponsored by O'Malley, which would “require the administration to adhere to existing policy when expending funds” for the towers. O'Malley called for immediate action for the bill to be heard, but the motion failed 4-3 to make the agenda. Instead, the bill was heard on Monday, Nov. 7, after this article went to print.
Heinrich, who voted against the call for immediate action as he said he wanted to give the city more time to work with O'Malley to “fix things,” said he made a public request for changing the funding sources for the project at the Oct. 17 meeting.
O'Malley said that if the funding was changed, it's only an admission of guilt on the part of the city. “It's like someone stealing and giving it back, thinking you're not going to punish them—it's OK for kids, but we're not dealing with children.”
Don Miller, budget/legislative analyst with Council Services, said he's never heard of a Median Enhancement fund and doesn't know what that would refer to. As to the Infill funds, the latest reports available on their balance came out Aug. 31. As of that date, the remaining balance in the Infill Streets fund, out of the original $2.8 million appropriated, was $1,769. As of the same date, the Infill Hydrology fund, out of an allocated $2 million, was $14,315 in the hole.
“There's no balance left if you add them together; the city will have to fix this. Any other work that needs to come out of the [funds], can't,” said Miller.
The two funds weren't renewed this last bond cycle, which means the remaining balance is all that's left to aid in such projects.
“My biggest concern is that the funding [sources] tapped are not appropriate. I'm hoping [the city] can find a source that's both appropriate and legal. It made no sense to me to use revitalization/
The interim findings for the investigation of the Tricentennial Towers project were released by the Office of Internal Audit on Nov. 7, and stated that they were “unable to determine if any inappropriate acts have occurred.” The investigation is continuing.