The five candidates for Scottsdale’s three open city council seats sat down for one final forum at Scottsdale United Methodist Church to discuss their varying visions for the future of the city.
While the forum – co-hosted by the church and the Scottsdale Progress – had the candidates tackling a wide range of issues, including Scottsdale’s ongoing infrastructure issues, public transportation, affordable housing and campaign contributions, future development and infrastructure needs took center stage.
All candidates agreed that one of the largest issues – if not the largest – facing Scottsdale is the city’s urgent need to fund a glut of infrastructure improvements. Scottsdale currently has over $800 million in capital improvement needs and the city currently has no dedicated funding source to address the bulk of them.
Incumbent David Smith said council’s capital improvement subcommittee that he served on identified $650 million in crucial needs and that the city should be dedicating $100 million per year toward its infrastructure.
Smith said this investment is needed, “because the city is that big and the infrastructure is that valuable, but we haven’t done it and that’s why you see things like bridges falling down and Drinkwater Plaza about to collapse onto Drinkwater Boulevard.”
All five candidates stated the need to put a bond request before voters in the next election in order to begin dealing with these infrastructure liabilities.
“We need those bonds passed,” Bill Crawford said. “They’ve got to be passed. It’s ordinary course of business with municipalities, and that’s why we need to have a unanimous agreement on the City Council.”
Incumbent Kathy Littlefield said she anticipated the next bond ask would be between $350 million and $450 million and urged residents to approve Question 1 – which would raise the sales tax by 0.01 percent to provide a dedicated funding source for transportation improvements and allow the city to access $170 million in matching funds from Maricopa County.
All candidates have spoken in favor of approving Question 1.
Incumbent Linda Milhaven said that when the council voted to put Question 1 on the ballot this year in lieu of a bond request, there was an agreement that it would take up the bond issue next.
Candidate Solange Whitehead said that though the city has AAA credit ratings, the infrastructure issue – along with other pending liabilities like the firefighter retirement fund – make for the biggest financial crisis in the city’s history.
She argued that the council needs to streamline existing projects and forego extraneous projects – such as, in her words “sidewalks in the preserve that nobody wants” – in order to restore public trust in the council.
Without that trust, she said, the public will not approve a bond.
Littlefield echoed that comment, blaming the Desert Edge and Prop 420 issues for turning some citizens against the city.
“I don’t see when you make citizens that angry, how you expect them to say yes to more money,” Littlefield said.
Much of the conversation focused on future development in the city – especially in the south – and how Scottsdale will manage growth while still maintaining its unique character.
Candidate Crawford, a downtown business owner with a long resume of public service, said that he believes it is important to retain Scottsdale’s identity as “the West’s Most Western Town” because that drives tourism and brings in bed tax revenues that are responsible for much of the city’s amenities.
Littlefield echoed Crawford’s sentiments and said Scottsdale needs to preserve its open spaces that attract tourism and benefit residents.
She is concerned about overdevelopment throughout the city and especially on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, noting she did not want Scottsdale to become “a city of glass and chrome.”
“I think that if we don’t be very, very careful on what we develop and how we go ahead 20 years from now, none of you would recognize Scottsdale,” she said.
Whitehead is also concerned about overdevelopment and said Scottsdale needs to maintain its distinct character, including open horse properties in the north, suburban center and active downtown.
However, Whitehead said she believes the city has ceded the authority to direct development priorities to development companies, claiming that has led to “wall to wall apartments instead of planned growth that honors our historical roots.”
Whitehead also repeatedly said the city needs to ensure that developers pay proper fees related to rezoning in order to support the building of new infrastructure, a point both Crawford and Milhaven disagreed with.
Milhaven said the city commissions an independent study related to all new development and developers are required to pay for any new infrastructure needs identified in those studies.
Section 48-103 of Scottsdale Revised Code states, “The city shall not issue any building permit for any structure until all applicable public improvements have been constructed to the satisfaction of the city staff, inspected and accepted.”
Milhaven also said that a portion of Scottsdale will always be true to the city’s western roots, but that the city is large, nearly 30 miles long, and so the citys can be “many, many things.”
She agreed with Whitehead’s point about preserving the character of the rural north, suburban center and active downtown, but also said she thinks development in the city has been done responsibly and in accordance with the vision put forth by residents.
She pointed to the redevelopment in southern Scottsdale, especially on old auto dealership sites, as evidence of this.
Smith said that whatever new development comes to Scottsdale must not undermine the city’s tourism industry. He said new development must increase the city’s attractiveness to tourists and the livability for residents.
He also said the city’s reputation as an arts and culture destination needs to be preserved, as it is an asset that promotes tourism to the city that is currently being challenged by burgeoning arts communities in other parts of the Valley.