A funny thing happened on Scottsdale mayoral candidate Jim Lane's way to gaining some new ground on the issue of financing the expansion of the McDowell Sonoran Preserve:
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Councilman Lane bobbled a shovel pass from his political consultant and - continuing the football metaphor - turned a chance to earn short yardage into an incomplete pass.
Consultant Lamar Whitmer filed what is called by the City Charter a "citizen petition," which was on Tuesday's agenda.
Whitmer called for the council to look into - ha, ha - the possibility of the city's selling its municipal water system to a private provider.
It was a means to provide Lane with an opportunity to talk about how much money it might take to complete the 36,400-acre preserve, about 19,000 acres of which remain unsecured.
Funding the preserve is one of a handful of issues about which Lane and his opponent, incumbent Mayor Mary Manross, have marked differences.
Manross has never outlined a financing plan with anything resembling a sunset to it. One of the earliest supporters of creating the preserve, she believes that finishing the preserve requires nothing less than a blank check from the city's taxpayers.
Already, two sales-tax increases totaling about one-third of a cent on each $1 purchased in Scottsdale are designated as funding to buy preserve land, and over the years the mayor has stated that more tax increases may be necessary.
Lane, an accountant, has expressed concern about how much money it will take and whether Scottsdale will ever be able to afford that. I'm no accountant, but 20,000 acres at a reasonable price of $100,000 per acre - remember, the real estate slump won't last forever - means it will take about $2 billion, or, at $50,000 per acre, about $1 billion. But even he has not ventured any specifics about a funding plan.
Neither did he on Tuesday, only trying to get Roger Klingler, who heads the city water department, to speculate as to what the water system might be worth on the open market. Wisely, Klingler answered that he didn't know.
Meanwhile, later Tuesday the council heard city staff members talk about strategy for future preserve land purchases. I caught most of it on my computer.
Such a council discussion is rare, and Lane has asked why the city hasn't set forth a better plan for the preserve's future.
Acting City Treasurer Craig Clifford said Tuesday he didn't know how much money would be needed to complete the preserve, only that it is an attainable goal.
He later said that he would be "optimistic" to say that the current sales tax levies would be sufficient to cover it and that he'd be "careful" if the council asked him to sell all of the city's current $460 million bonding maximum at once in today's real estate climate.
"At this point in time there are too many unknowns to, I think, be worrying about more money until we know what the price is," he said, adding he hoped that state land reform proposed for the Nov. 4 ballot as Proposition 103 might help clarify the situation.
Still, Clifford was talking about an average price of about $20,000 an acre.
You don't have to be in real estate to wonder if such a price is too low, particularly given what land values are likely to be here in the next few decades.
Instead of a real plan, we have what we've always had: Some land becomes available, usually through the state Land Department, and the city bids on it, unless, of course, the kitty runs low and city officials first must consider a new sales-tax increase.
The last one, passed in 2004, lost in every precinct south of Indian Bend Road, which indicated that the current funding system is not universally embraced, especially among voters living the farthest from the McDowells.
A real plan to complete the preserve, which forecasts how much money will be needed and when the city will stop asking taxpayers for it, is needed even more now. The Arizona Secretary of State determined last week that Proposition 103 won't be on the Nov. 4 ballot due to lack of valid signatures.
With only a little over a week to go until the Sept. 2 election, let's see if Lane or Manross will outline such a plan for what is still, and will continue to be, Scottsdale's most ambitious municipal undertaking.
From the field position Scottsdale is in regarding the preserve, short yardage won't get the city near enough to the goal line.