City bonds for non-profits? Critics question use, but supporters say funds crucial for needed services

Monica Alonzo-Dunsmoor The Arizona Republic Feb. 27, 2006 12:00 AM

Supporters of the $878.5 million Phoenix bond program say that borrowing money for citywide improvements is no different than taking out a home mortgage.

But opponents have a question: Would a homeowner really refinance his or her house to give to charity?

This year marks the first time that non-profit agencies have been allowed to request and would receive money in a Phoenix bond program. In the past, they have had to partner with city departments to get funding.

And the new rules aren't sitting well with some residents who say public dollars should only be used to pay for essential city services.

"I just really have a problem with (it)," said Bob McKnight, a 75-year Phoenix resident who served on one of the subcommittees that helped craft the bond package. "I think that it's an insult to the American people to force them . . . to pay for something that they would probably support voluntarily."

Altogether, about $90 million has been earmarked for programs supported or funded by such agencies.

City officials say they know that there are those who don't like the idea of giving money to non-profits. But they say a one-time allocation to the groups can provide needed services to residents while eliminating the city's responsibility to maintain and operate such facilities over a long period of time.

The organizations that could benefit include:

The Arizona Bridge to Independent Living. It stands to get $5.3 million to create a recreation and sports center for people with disabilities.

United Methodist Outreach Ministries. If approved, $2 million would go toward building transitional housing for homeless families.

The Pioneer Arizona Foundation. The foundation spends $38,000 operating the Pioneer Arizona Living History Museum in north Phoenix. But the city is proposing spending $5 million to buy the property and turn it into a park. That would allow the foundation to spend its money on museum renovations.

The proposed non-profit expenditures are found mainly in Propositions Four, Five and Six of Phoenix's seven-proposition bond program, which goes before voters March 14.

The other propositions include money for police and fire stations, technology upgrades and street and storm sewer improvements. There is also about $230 million in the package for an Arizona State University campus in downtown Phoenix.

C. J. Smith, president of the Pioneer Arizona Foundation, which operates the museum at I-17 and Carefree Highway, said he knows that some are concerned about the non-profit allocations.

But he says it's crucial that his group receive the funding.

"We are trying to preserve history," he said. "We're trying to educate kids on what the early West was like. They have no idea . . . and it wasn't that damn far away."

Councilman Dave Siebert has been the driving force behind saving the museum as well as the Ben Avery Shooting Facility, a nearby shooting range.

The State Game and Fish Department owns the shooting range, but Phoenix wants to spend $3 million to improve the Clay Target Center, the only part of the shooting facility that is privately operated.

"This is the first time that I know of that the shooting community has had a shot at bond money, and they pay taxes just like everyone else," said Siebert, adding that the city would put all profits back into the range.

But McKnight and others shudder at the thought of city money being used to pay to improve the facility.

"I'm not for that at all," McKnight said. "Why is the city getting into all these things?"

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-2478.

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