Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Old Pueblo Blues

Posted By on Tue, Dec 29, 2009 at 10:02 AM

Tucson City Manager Mike Letcher revealed his strategy handling the city’s $32 million shortfall this week—and the options are grim.

Letcher, who wants the City Council to vote on a plan next Tuesday, Jan. 5, laid out a framework most council members will not be eager to support.

For starters, he wants the city to institute a landlord tax of 2 percent on residential rental payments, which will raise an estimated $10 million annually.

Even if he gets the rental tax, Letcher has more nasty medicine for the council to swallow, including:

• Laying off 89 employees as part of the elimination of a total of 377 positions, some of which are now vacant;

• Cutting city employee pay by 3 percent;

• Closing 17 city pools this summer;

• Reducing city assistance for neighborhood associations;

• Suspending the graffiti abatement program;

• Closing the Ormsby Recreation Center on the south side of town; and

• Cutting outside agency funding by 20 percent.

Without the rental tax, Letcher warns, the city would need to reduce outside agency funding by 60 percent and lay off more employees, including cops and firefighters.

Trying to balance the budget by cutting employee pay across the board instead of laying off employees would lead to pay cuts that were substantially more than the proposed 3 percent, Letcher said earlier this week.

Letcher wants the landlord/rental tax to be a temporary measure that would go away once city voters agree to

raise property taxes.

One thing that’s not in Letcher’s plan: A proposal to cut the pay of higher-paid city employees by a bigger percentage than that of lower-paid employees. That idea was floated by several council members at a meeting earlier this month.

A majority of council members we’ve spoken to in recent days opposed the rental tax, but whether they’ll stand by that next week remains to be seen.

Councilwoman Regina Romero says she and fellow Democrat Karin Uhlich wanted to go straight to putting a property tax on the ballot in November.

In a memo to Letcher, the two council members said they want the property tax to bring in enough money to fully fund public safety, the afternoon daycare program Kidco and graffiti abatement.

Leaving aside the observation that we might have less graffiti to abate if Romero didn’t fund graffiti classes with money from her office, we’re not exactly sure what “fully funding” means, given that the city could spend tens of millions more on public safety.

That’s an important point because the amount of a property tax would make a big difference in whether voters would get behind it in these recessionary times.

At any rate, next Tuesday’s council meeting promises to be a contentious affair.

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