Scottsdale City Council will reconvene Tuesday, Aug. 30 as members of the local governing board say they look forward to continuing their public service for the more than 220,000 residents who call the municipality home.
While three members of city council and mayor Jim Lane are up for re-election this November, Vice Mayor Kathy Littlefield and council members David Smith and Linda Milhaven’s terms do not end until 2018.
The three sitting council members shared some of their top priorities for the 2016-17 fiscal year, naming specifically the Desert Discovery Center, filling the position of city manager, food tax, transportation and budget allocations.
The first regular council meetings are scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30 and Wednesday, Aug. 31, at City Hall, 3939 N. Drinkwater Blvd.
When asked what topics they would like to tackle this year, all three members of council mentioned the Desert Discovery Center. The center is defined as “a city of Scottsdale project envisioned for more than 20 years as a place to interpret the nearby McDowell Sonoran Preserve,” according to the facility’s website.
The center, first proposed in January 2010 and then reincarnated in September 2015, has drawn the attention of many local residents and stakeholders — both positive and negative.
On June 7, council approved a $521,090 contract with Scottsdale-based Swaback Partners, the same architectural firm awarded a design contract for the project in 2010. Vice Mayor Littlefield was one of two dissenting votes in June.
She believes the city needs to make an amendment to its constitution, also known as the city Charter, to allow residents to vote on the issue.
“Making it a binding vote to change the Charter, whether or not to allow commercial development within our preserve,” she said during an Aug. 10 phone interview. “I think it’s more than just the DDC itself. I think this is something that the citizens need to vote on — on what they want their preserve to be. Do they want it to be a preserve or do they want it to be a park?”
Prior to the June vote, in January 2016 the council voted 6 to 1 to approve a measure with three caveats including the budget transfer of $1.69 million in an effort to lay the foundation for an opportunity to construct an interpretive desert appreciation venue at the Gateway to the Upper Sonoran Desert. Vice Mayor Littlefield was the lone dissenting vote on that measure.
Today, the proposed-idea is in the middle of an 18-month evaluation period to study the project at the Gateway to the McDowell Sonoran Preserve.
“I think we need to support the efforts the DDC asks and allow them to complete their work to define the scope of the Desert Discovery Center,” said councilwoman Milhaven in an Aug. 9 phone interview.
The results of the study will allow the council and community to better understand what type of project is being proposed.
“We are all awaiting the results of the study that was authorized last year,” said Councilman Smith in an Aug. 10 phone interview. “That study will indicate really what it is we’re talking about as a Desert Discovery Center and as scope and cost and size.”
Councilman Smith says he supported that study when it was first presented to council in order to bring closure to the topic — no matter what way the project goes.
“I do want to bring closure to this item and I don’t think we can do so until we actually know definitively what we’re talking about,” said Councilman Smith.
“Once we have that definitive study in front of us, I don’t think there will be much other need for further study. I think we’ve just about studied the thing to death at this point and it’s time to decide what we’re going to do with that hot potato.”
Councilwoman Milhaven wants to include local residents in the process after the results of the study are completed, “to understand what folks think after that work is completed,” she said.
Scottsdale needs a city manager
Secondly, on the minds of the council members is the vacant position of city manager.
Over a year ago, then-City Manager Fritz Behring took an extended medical leave and Scottsdale Water Director Brian Biesemeyer stepped in.
On March 1, the council voted to sever employment ties with Mr. Behring after a nine-month medical hiatus.
On June 16, the city council held a special meeting where three individuals who were finalists for the position were not offered the position.
“Ultimately we could not reach consensus on any of the finalists, so we will continue the search,” said Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane in a press release the following day.
Mr. Biesemeyer has ultimately been filling two positions while the search for the right person continues.
“I would like to see us appoint a permanent city manager,” said Vice Mayor Littlefield.
“I like Brian Biesemeyer, he’s doing a good job as acting city manager but he’s basically holding down two very important, very complex positions at the same time and that’s hard on him. We never anticipated his having to do this for so long a period of time.”
The city manager is a crucial cog in the machine that is local city government.
“That’s one of the primary responsibilities of city council, is to hire a city manager,” said Councilman Smith. “And, then everything else cascades down from there, in terms of management of the city.”
Councilwoman Milhaven included in her future targets the work to be done with local transportation and reviving the McDowell Corridor.
“I think we need to continue to look for ways to revitalize McDowell Road and our downtown,” she said. “I think a lot of good work has been done in those parts of our city, but I think we need to be diligent to make sure that we continue to promote brand investment in our community.”
On July 5, city council voted 5-2 to adopt the 2016 Transportation Master Plan. Prior, the 2008 Master Plan was the first comprehensive look at the city’s entire transportation system since the 1980s, according to the city website.
“Longer term, I think we need to continue work to improve our transportation connections with the regional system,” said Councilwoman Milhaven. She was one of two dissenting votes on the Transportation Master Plan in July.
She wants to see the council support increasing bus and other transportation connections with other parts of the Valley.
“We’re sort of moving forward with that, but continue to support increasing our connections with the bus service and things like that, and making sure we’re executing what’s in the Transportation Master Plan,” she said.
Vice Mayor Littlefield says she aims to trim the budget.
“I would like to work harder and a little more in-depth with our budget to try and trim it to try and get rid of the excesses,” she said.
“We need to better align with our neighboring cities as far as employee costs and personnel costs. We’re one of the highest in the Valley for regular employees, not including police and fire.”
The budget could use a serious look-over, said the vice mayor.
“I would like to see some real in-depth, old-fashion accounting — green eye shades and red pencils — and go through our budget to make it a little more in-line and tighter,” she said.
Councilman Smith’s agenda also includes continuing to work on abolishing food tax in the city of Scottsdale, a project he’s been fighting since he first joined council in 2015. He previously held the position of city treasurer and chief financial officer from 2009 to 2013.
“It certainly will be my priority to continue movement forward to eliminate the sales tax on food in the city,” he said. “We’ve met with some measure of success as we have started a program to essentially wean the General Fund off of reliance of the food tax, taking it out of the general fund receipts and removing the possibility that it will be used for general fund purposes.”
However, the tax has temporarily been moved to the capital improvement program fund for now.
“The citizens themselves have not seen a reduction in tax, and ultimately that’s what I want to see happen. So that will continue to be a priority for me, and we will hammer on that until we accomplish something.”