When the announcement first hit the pavement regarding the resignation of former City Manager Brenda Fischer of Glendale, her prepared statement included the phrase, “she has accomplished all of her goals at the city.”
After an extensive online search no publicly stated goals could be found. Her biography on Glendale’s website (her bio is no longer available and has been replaced with Interim City Manager Dick Bowers’ bio) offered the following: “during her tenure Fisher implemented a five-year budget forecast and presented short-term budget solutions or reductions in service to the community; she reorganized the city’s structure and operations leading to a streamlined organization that has increased productivity, efficiency without layoffs and created future cost savings.” In a February 12, 2015 story written by Eric Toll of the Phoenix Business Journal Fischer is quoted as saying, “We have a totally different management staff, a young council, and a community beginning to trust the city’s performance.” She pointed out that Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s had rated the city’s finances as stable. She said the city organization was healthier and doing good things.
Before checking Ms. Fischer’s “Pinocchio rating” (every time he told a lie, his nose grew), some Glendale sports debt in a historical context is in order.
Glendale’s hockey arena known as the Gila River Arena opened in December, 2003. A little known fact is that until Jerry Moyes declared the Phoenix Coyotes bankrupt in 2009 Glendale had collected enough money every year to pay for the arena except for the period of the NHL lockout in 2005-06. From December, 2003 through June, 2010, when the NHL took over management of the arena, the city had received $22,803,757.54. The city never paid a management fee through 2009. Everything changed with the Moyes’ bankruptcy and begins the era of the city’s having to pay a management fee. To keep the Coyotes in Glendale and the arena open, Glendale paid the NHL $25 million dollars as a management fee in 2010 and 2011 while a new Coyotes owner was secured. Those funds came primarily from two sources, the city’s contingency fund and enterprise funds. The city’s contingency fund was depleted dramatically and reached a low of approximately $11 million dollars. Instead of receiving revenue from the arena as in years past, now the city was paying a management fee: $25 million a year to the NHL and $15 million a year to IceArizona. The original debt for the arena was $180 million dollars but over the years additional debt such as for infrastructure has made that figure greater. The current annual debt payment for the arena is approximately $13 million dollars a year meaning that each and every year the city must outlay $28 million dollars (debt plus management fee) just to keep the doors of the arena open.
Camelback Ranch, the city owned spring training facility cost $152 million to build. It opened in February, 2009. The original deal called for the Arizona Sports and Tourism Authority (AZSTA) to replay the city for 66.7% of the cost not to exceed $90 million dollars. Many issues unrelated to Glendale have put into question whether the city will ever be repaid by AZSTA and when. In 2014, the original loan that Glendale took out as a reserve to pay the baseball construction debt is used up and in 2018 the city will be making debt payments of $15.2 million annually. When Glendale pays off its sports construction debt for hockey and baseball it will have paid out about $849 million dollars.
Brenda Fischer came on board in July of 2013, the same month that the city council approved the annual management agreement with IceArizona for $15 million dollars. Under her watch two short-term solutions she implemented were: making the temporary sales tax increase permanent and refinancing the city’s bond debt. Fischer’s solutions in partially dealing with Glendale’s tremendous debt were not new or innovative.
The temporary sales tax increase was set to expire in 2017 because council believed that with the implementation of further cost saving solutions over the original five year period it could be sunset at that time. Fischer’s solution was to make the tax increase permanent. It was making the temporary sales tax permanent that caused Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s to rate Glendale’s finances as stable and to remove its negative rating. Moody’s said the improved rating was tied to a Glendale City Council decision in June of 2014 to make a 0.7% sales tax increase permanent. Keep in mind that while the city’s bonds related to its General Fund debt had been downgraded, Moody’s continued to reaffirm an A1 rating for Glendale’s water and sewer revenue bonds.
Refinancing the city’s bond debt was not a new, innovative solution either. Not just Glendale but many cities make it a habit and practice to refinance their debt when market conditions are favorable. Prior to Fischer’s coming on board Glendale had refinanced its debt in February, 2012. Every time the city refinances debt, it saves money in terms of future debt payments because the interest rate is usually lowered. Anyone who had been City Manager during the past 17 months would have implemented the very same solutions. These are steps that would have been taken with or without Brenda Fischer. What about the city’s Finance Director, Tom Duensing? He deserves the lion’s share of the credit (or blame) for making the sales tax permanent and using the historical tool of refinancing the debt.
Another accolade that Fischer claims is the use of the five-year budget forecast. The city council in previous years before Fischer’s appearance had rejected the notion of a five-year budget forecast as being highly unreliable. City staff had acknowledged that the only relatively certain information to be obtained would be for the following one year — not another four years out. We know how well long range financial forecasting works — not one financial “expert”, national, regional or local, had the Great Recession on the radar screen.
Fischer also claims to have reestablished trust in Glendale government. Her bio stated, “she reorganized the city’s structure and operations leading to a streamlined organization that has increased productivity, efficiency and created future cost savings.” Yet employee trust was further eroded when she named Julie Frisoni as an Assistant City Manager or when she allowed certain employees to leave and to be rehired at a higher pay. Citizen trust was seriously eroded recently with the proposal to sell the Foothills Library and to relocate its remnants to the Foothills Recreation Center. City council lost trust in her when she requested the emails of three councilmembers (her bosses) that she apparently believed were against her.
Fischer claimed a lot but anyone would as a face saving tactic. Don’t forget, she’s still got Frisoni who nominated her for the Phoenix Business Journal’s Businesswoman of the Year Award and who is busy issuing glowing statements about Fischer’s accomplishments to the media. They ignore Frisoni’s press releases at their peril for they could be frozen out of obtaining any information from Glendale on any issue.
Fischer is receiving $152,000 or 9 months pay as the council’s parting gift. Many people are upset about the largesse she is receiving. Holding my nose, I support council’s decision. If they would not fire her then their only option was her resignation and it was going to cost them to obtain it. Don’t forget…there were 3 councilmembers in her corner: Sherwood, Chavira and Aldama.
What is Fischer’s “Pinocchio rating?” I will leave that for your decision. It will be interesting to see, on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most falsehood or exaggeration, what you think.
© Joyce Clark, 2015
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