Arizona moving to use conservation money before vote

By Paul Davenport, Associated Press

Published: September 15, 2010 at 6:04 pm

Arizona parks officials and local governments in the Phoenix and Flagstaff areas are moving to spend up to $52 million of land conservation money that legislators envisioned being used instead to help keep the budget in the black.

The state Parks Board on Wednesday voted to award grants to Coconino County and the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale for separate purchases of large parcels of state trust land for preservation as open space.

The $52 million would come from a decade-old land conservation fund authorized by a voter-approved 1998 ballot measure that is now the subject of a new ballot measure that appears as Proposition 301 on the Nov. 2 general election ballot.

Under the Growing Smarter conservation program, public and private entities can get state funding for purchases of trust land for conservation purposes. The purchaser must provide a match to the state funding.

Despite the pending ballot measure, it’s right to use the money for Growing Smarter land purchases because voters intended that and because land prices are now low, providing good value for the dollars, said William Scalzo, a Parks Board member from Phoenix.

“Right now we’re doing what the voters told us to do,” Scalzo said during a brief interview during a break in the meeting after the board awarded the grants.

Approval of Proposition 301, a referendum put on the ballot by the Legislature, would use the land fund’s $123 million to help close a budget shortfall. The budget assumes that voters will approve that transfer as well as a larger one involving funding for early childhood programs.

When lawmakers approved the current $8.5 billion budget last spring, the transfers were among steps taken to close a shortfall then estimated at $2.65 billion. Officials now estimate the budget has a new shortfall of approximately $700 million.

The proposed land purchases would result from auctions that the state Land Department has scheduled for October for the Phoenix and Scottsdale projects, 1,138 acres and 2,000 acres respectively

The auction for the 2,249-acre Rogers Lake site southwest of Flagstaff that Coconino County wants to acquire is scheduled Nov. 1, the day before the election.

If the auctions were held after Nov. 2 and if voters approved Proposition 301, the money would have to be transferred as part of the budget-balancing plan.

The Parks Board approved the awards without discussion until Chairman Reese Woodling said after the unanimous vote that he hopes the auctions are held before Nov. 2.

“It will,” assured Land Commissioner Maria Baier, who sits on the Parks Board because she heads the Land Department.

Contacted after the meeting, a legislator who was one of the architects of the current budget said the Growing Smarter grant awards would be honored because the local governments have acted in good faith and the projects have been in the works for years.

However, the loss of up to $52 million that could otherwise flow into the general fund if voters approve Proposition 301 will make it harder to avoid midyear spending cuts, said House Appropriations Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills. “It’s not a problem if you want to preserve land but it is a problem is you’re trying to balance the budget.”

Jeanne Trupiano, a Coconino County parks and recreation manager, said the paperwork has been arranged for the sale to go through the same day as the auction.

What isn’t assured is that somebody other than the county will submit the highest bid, Trupiano said.

Coconino County has long sought to acquire the property southwest of Flagstaff for preservation as a “natural area,” particularly because it teems with elk and other wildlife, she said.

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