Fire breaks out outside museum at Papago Park in Tempe. Video by Thomas Hawthorne/

Tempe taxpayers may have to pay $356,000 for damage to the Historical Society Museum caused by a homeless camp fire that ignited in Papago Park last year.

The state, which owns the museum, filed a claim against the city in Superior Court on Wednesday, claiming the city breached its contract to maintain the Green Line riparian area west of the museum that burned.

The city knew of the threat posed by homeless camps in the area but did not clean them up as requested by museum officials, said the claim from the office of Attorney General Mark Brnovich.

The June 15, 2016, fire ignited late in the evening and sent flames into the sky above Papago Park that could be seen for miles. Embers drifted onto the museum roof.

City emails revealed it was the second fire in the area within a year thought to be caused by homeless camps, and that the Historical Society had made multiple requests for the city to clean up the area.

“The state actually relied, to its detriment, on the city’s representations that it would take action to maintain the Green Line, including landscape clean up, removal of trash and debris, and instituting measures to remove established homeless camps,” the claim said.

Arizona Historical Society is a state agency that got about 70 percent of its $4.5 million budget in 2016 from the state.

The 2016 fire also threatened the historical Sandra Day O’Connor House next door, the former home of retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. Somehow its wood-shingled roof escaped damage while the museum did not.

The city boasts the O’Connor House is “in one of the most unique desert settings in the Valley metro area,” yet residents have complained in the past year that the city is not maintaining the area and keeping it safe.


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State’s claim vs. Tempe appears to hinge on contract

In December, the Arizona Department of Administration estimated the cost to repair the museum to be $470,000. Museum officials said emergency repairs were needed at least three times following the fire to fix roof leaks. No exhibits were damaged by the water.

The claim is for less than the total cost of the repairs because the state is only seeking to recover the depreciated value of the roof.

The state filed two notices of claim that the city has rejected, the claim said.

The Historical Society won a grant in 2000 from the Arizona Water Protection Fund to maintain the Green Line, which has a small creek fed by outflow from a water-treatment plant. In 2003 the society entered a contract where the city took over the responsibility for the maintenance under the grant, according to the complaint.

Attorney David Martinez, who is not representing either party in the case, said the state’s claim appears to hinge on that contract.

“Certainly does not sound good for the city if the fire started (and) spread because of the overgrowth,” said Martinez, chairman of real-estate litigation for the Rose Law Group. “It would be interesting to see what the contract actually says.”

Council members declined to discuss the lawsuit and Tempe spokeswoman Nikki Ripley said the city does not discuss pending litigation.

Tempe declines to hire 2nd park ranger

The Fire Department’s investigation into the scene found several homeless camps and trash strewn throughout the Green Line. Some of the camps were well established with raised beds. At least one gasoline can was on site in a camp. 

The city has cleared much of the area’s overgrown brush, but the Green Line and Tempe’s side of Papago Park remain a haven for homeless campers seeking shade and privacy. The Phoenix side of Papago Park, which is patrolled by the city, does not have the same issues.

The Tempe City Council voted recently not to hire an additional ranger to patrol the Papago Park area and help homeless people find assistance. 

Councilman Randy Keating proposed the city allocate $180,000 for an additional park resource officer  — the city only has one — who would patrol and help with homelessness in the city’s parks during a June 8 special council meeting. 

“Our current park resource officer is overwhelmed,” Keating said.

Vice Mayor Robin Arredondo-Savage and other members of the council stated their desire to have the money still be available but have the city’s homeless outreach task-force decide what the funds should be used for. 

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir also urged the council to hire an additional park resource officer. Of the 31 requests the Police Department made, a new park resource officer ranked No. 9, Moir said. 

“We’ve heard a lot from our community that there is a degraded feeling of safety in a lot of our parks,” Moir said. 

Tempe police’s current park officer works a 4-day, 10-hour shift weekly and the addition of another officer would allow the department to have “better coverage” of Tempe parks, Moir said. 

The council ultimately voted unanimously to give $180,000 to the city homelessness task-force coordinators to decide what should be done after the completion of a city-funded study examining homelessness.


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