By Alan Scherstuhl
By Chris Packham
By Robrt L. Pela
By Claire Lawton
By New Times Staff
By Claire Lawton
By Robrt L. Pela
By Robrt L. Pela
If you knew Tom Oldendick of Phoenix Little Theatre--a flamboyant type who performs a story rather than tells it--you'd be laughing so hard you'd forget for a moment that the three-act comedy he's replaying almost cost you, the Phoenix taxpayer, a cool half million.
He doesn't spring his story as if it were big news. It only comes up in the course of a lunch when the conversation, as it invariably does, gets around to the latest screw-up by City Hall.
"You think thaaaaat's bad," Oldendick starts. If you knew Tom, you'd settle in to hear another wildly entertaining tale punctuated by the gross exaggeration that's always been the mainstay of comedians.
And it takes a while before you realize this absurd story is no exaggeration at all.
In short, it goes like this: City Hall was intent on throwing away at least $500,000 on the totally pointless reroofing of two buildings that will be dramatically remodeled within the next year. Now who in the world would redo the roof before they've rearranged the walls? "Exactly," Oldendick sings. "But getting to the bottom of this was like trying to unravel spaghetti."
The way city officials like to tell this story, they were just trying to mend a leaky roof. And when it became obvious it would be too costly, they dropped the idea. That's the way they like to tell it. But that's not how it happened.
A few pieces of background information are helpful in putting these particular leaky roofs in perspective. In May of 1988, Phoenix voters passed a record $1 billion bond issue, most of the money earmarked for cultural improvements. The bulk will go to the three city facilities now clustered at Central and McDowell in the Civic Center: the library, the Phoenix Art Museum and the Phoenix Little Theatre. The library will move south to a completely new building, leaving its old space to be remodeled or renovated as extra square footage for the other two. By the time the bond money is spent, all three facilities will have shiny new faces.
The city was so proud of its voters--few cities in the country have ever approved such massive public spending--that it entered the bond program in national competition and viola! Phoenix was named an All-America City.
It's safe to say that just about every conscious soul residing in this community knew there'd been a successful bond election and had at least a vague idea it was for cultural things. Jimmy the Greek would probably give odds that everyone inside City Hall was well versed on the bonds.
So nobody can quite explain why a couple of months after the election, the city decided to ignore the imminent remodeling of the museum and theatre to spend $5,000 on a Detroit consultant to evaluate their existing roofs. The explanation offered by city architect Leslie Thomas is, "They were leaking and we wanted to know if we could economically fix them."
It was not a question that any longer interested either Jim Ballinger at the Art Museum or Tom Oldendick at the theatre. Sure, a few years back they inquired about redoing the 25-year-old roofs over their buildings, but that query was moot now that both structures were going to be expanded and remodeled. Besides, leaky roofs in Phoenix aren't the stuff of daily nightmares. This isn't London. This isn't even Seattle. Considering the few days of rain we normally get a year, accommodations can be made for the inconvenience. Unless, of course, the leaks were doing serious damage. But they weren't. Ballinger says his leak is in an elevator far removed from anything of value and Oldendick says his is easily contained with a strategically placed slop bucket. "It's amazing the roof is as good as it is," says Ballinger generously.
That's not the way the Detroit consultants saw it. According to their report, with its 49 pictures, new roofs were needed. The price tag for keeping the museum's elevator dry and retiring Oldendick's slop bucket started at half a million and went up to $700,000.
To add insult to injury, the money for the roofing would come out of the bond issue. "That wasn't the spirit of the vote," Ballinger says. But it was hard to stop the city once it got rolling on the useless project. Oldendick the storyteller uses another food image: "Trying to stop this was like trying to handle Jell-O."
Oldendick remembers being perplexed last spring when he first learned that new roofs were even being considered. The news came in a call saying it was "urgent" that he and Ballinger come to City Hall to schedule the closing of their facilities for the reroofing. "WHHHAAAAAAAAT reroofing," he shouted. He called Ballinger asking if the museum was demanding a new roof. He told Ballinger the theatre wasn't either. Oldendick was eventually informed that all this was routine. Somehow, this was the moment when that old query about a new roof came to the top of the pile on somebody's desk and the next thing anyone knew, a $5,000 consultant was crawling around up there, fearful of life and limb.
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