Buereaucrats Fiddle With The Roof

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.

So to the meeting went the puzzled men from the Civic Center. They reminded the men from City Hall that they really didn't want a new roof. "But the old roof is leaking," they were told.

They stressed that remodeling was planned immediately. "But the old roof is leaking," they were told.

They warned that voters would be aghast at learning the bond money was being squandered. "But the old roof is leaking," they were told.

Oldendick didn't feel he was communicating clearly to the city officials sitting in the room. "It struck me that everyone was marching straight ahead, even if they were marching off the cliff and there was no one in the helicopter saying, `Hey, you're marching over the cliff.'"

Ballinger, too, recalls a sense of helplessness. "There was a definite feeling that they were ready to go ahead," he recalls.

"Is this roof going to fall in and kill my patrons?" Oldendick pressed, getting right down to the nitty-gritty. No, he was told. "But the old roof is leaking." What about patching? Could do that, the consultants said, for about $200,000. Couldn't guarantee that would stop the leaks. "I have a very minor leak," Oldendick pleaded. "I've never felt the museum is in danger because of our leak," Ballinger begged. "You're not doing us any favors," both tried to say nicely.

At one point in this meeting, Oldendick recalls, the two options city officials wanted to discuss were spending $200,000 for a patch that wouldn't hold or spending $500,000 on a new roof that would be torn off in a remodeling a couple of months down the line. Suddenly a voice from somewhere in the room pierced the bureaucratic haze with logic. "What if we did nothing?" This phenomenally sensible question came from the lips of Jim Rhone, the city's special projects manager. Rhone is one of those guys who give bureaucrats a good name.

Oldendick thinks Rhone's question produced a moment of total silence.
"Then the roof will continue leaking," came the response.
"Will the leaks get much worse?"
"Don't think so."

"As the tenants of these buildings, we're willing to accept that," Oldendick and Ballinger quickly volunteered.

"Then you can't hold the city responsible," came the retort.
"No we won't, we promise," came the pledge. "We'll risk it for the next few months until we find out what the remodeled buildings look like."

Rhone finally pronounced the do-nothing solution. He even wrote a two-page memo so everyone could clearly understand the decision.

Ballinger went back to the museum to ruminate over the events of the day. Oldendick went back to entertain his staff with a full-blown reenactment of the meeting. The consultant went back to Detroit, check in hand. Rhone went to his office and to this day, likes to downplay how he helped save a half million in precious bond money. Everyone else went away thinking this wasn't a particularly remarkable meeting.

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Jana Bommersbach