Michael Nowakowski’s unlikely Phoenix City Council win puts him on Big Money’s radar

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But this is out of control.

The influx of money in the system is not increasing voter participation. Only 19 percent of the city's registered voters bothered to go to the polls in September. District Seven, despite having the most expensive council race in Phoenix history, drew less than that — just 15 percent in the November runoff. That's one reason why Phoenix candidates' per-vote costs are so high. But even beyond that, the numbers are out of whack. It shouldn't cost $250,000 to win a job that mostly amounts to dealing with griping neighbors and sitting through interminable meetings!

There are a few ways we could fix the system.

First, we ought to consider some sort of Clean Elections-style financing. Tucson does it. If council candidates there get 300 contributions of $10 or more, and agree to limit their spending, they can get up to $45,090 each in matching funds. It's an imperfect system, but it bears consideration.

Second, at the very minimum, the clerk's office should put campaign-finance reports online. If nothing else, residents should get to see who's giving, without having to trudge to City Hall every time there's a vote coming up. It's no hardship for full-time troublemakers like me, but what about the guy with three kids and a full-time job who is concerned about a project coming to his neighborhood?

Tucson city clerk Kathy Detrick says that her office put PDFs of campaign-finance reports online for the first time last year. It cost nothing. In fact, Detrick says, they may be actually saving money; her staff doesn't have to deal with nearly so many requests for photocopies.

Better disclosure would help in the short term. But it's only a first step, and if we're not willing to do something to turn off the big-money spigot, we're going to see more and more good candidates taking at a look at the amount spent in the 2007 races — and deciding not to run in 2009.

Jon Altmann, for one, tells me that he's decided to run for state representative this year instead of making another attempt at city council.

When I ask how he's going to finance that, Altmann just laughs. "I'm using Clean Elections," he says.

Smart guy. But pretty sad when a statehouse seat is more affordable than one on the City Council. And pretty sad when the bidding gets as high as $93 a vote. After all, this isn't Iowa. You shouldn't need Mitt Romney's money, much less a relative in Congress, to get your foot in your door.

Speaking of money, let's talk about $86 million. That's how much money the agencies that are supposed to be building our freeways and light-rail lines have decided to put toward building . . . a building.

Remember Proposition 400? When voters passed it in November 2004, we heard about how the one-half-cent sales tax extension would pay for light rail, buses, and new freeways.

We did not hear much about high-rise office buildings in downtown Phoenix. But that's exactly where $86 million of our transportation funding is now expected to go. Basically, the three regional agencies that spend transportation dollars — Valley Metro, the Regional Public Transit Authority, and the Maricopa Association of Governments — have decided that they ought to be under one roof, and that the roof in question ought to be brand spanking new. So they've bought land at First Avenue and McKinley Street and hired a design consultant. Unless the agencies have a change of heart soon, we'll see a groundbreaking by year's end.

Bryan Jungwirth, assistant to the executive director of the Regional Public Transit Authority, insists that construction will actually save money. "We would probably spend a lot more over the course of 30 years on rent," he says. "The return to the taxpayer is much greater to build or own something than to rent it."

I have to admit I'm skeptical about that. Maybe it is less expensive to buy than rent, but new construction is never that much of a bargain.

And that raises another question: How exactly do they intend to pay for this?

In October, the Arizona Department of Transportation revised its estimates on just how much money Proposition 400 would be generating, thanks to the state's economic downturn. In 2007, for example, we're looking at $149 million less than the year before.

As the board of directors for Valley Metro concluded in a recent report, the Regional Office Center, a.k.a. the $86 million Shrine to Regional Transportation Bureaucracy, was supposed to be financed by "'unallocated' revenues received from the Proposition 400 tax." However, under ADOT's new projections, the report concludes, "There currently is no 'unallocated' amount . . ."

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske