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Choice Cuts 

Suggestions from the public on how to trim the city budget haven't been very helpful

Econ 101 teaches that to balance a deficit-riddled budget, elected officials have to either raise revenues or cut expenditures.

While it gave some attention to improving efficiency, the Citizen Finance and Service Review Committee mostly recommended several tax and fee increases in its February report to the City Council.

The political conundrum the facing actual implementation of their proposed solutions were highlighted by two committee members at the town halls recently held by the group.

"There just are not many ways to extract money from the public," local land use attorney Si Schorr said. "It's a painful process."

Real estate executive Mike Hammond added, "A good tax is on somebody else."

Roger Karber, who represented multi-family housing interests at the town halls, says businesses wouldn't take the tax-and-spend approach to solving the problem. Instead, the private sector would first seek financial solutions by trimming the budget.

"In the short run, raising taxes is easier than a long-term look for efficiencies," Karber says. "That's a different philosophy, but that's the approach business owners would take."

As for the city's current fiscal situation, Karber thinks the improving economy will solve the problem this time around. Ultimately, he believes City Hall will be forced to get rid of some programs that enjoy popular support, such as the annual $3 million drain of the Tucson Convention Center.

To address the city's funding plight, other attendees at the sparsely attended town halls had additional suggestions for cutting costs instead of raising taxes, ranging from the financially insignificant to the truly controversial.

One participant pointed at the city's health insurance program, claiming the premium paid by a municipal worker to cover a family of four is only about one-seventh of what someone who picks up the whole tab has to spend. He suggested that more than $10 million a year could be saved if municipal employees paid a "fair share" of their medical benefits.

Actual city employee contributions for their insurance coverage vary widely depending upon the type of medical plan selected and the number of people covered. Costs range from zero for a single employee in an HMO to almost $4,000 annually for full family coverage under a preferred provider option.

The city government's cost to provide this benefit for its thousands of employees also ranges widely. Depending upon the type of coverage, it goes from a low of just more than $3,000 for a single person, to a high of more than $9,000 for an entire household.

When the idea of increasing city employee medical insurance costs in order to reduce the taxpayer's burden was brought up, officials said that the city needed to provide competitive wages and benefits.

Another town hall suggestion: impose a tax on city employees living outside the city limits. Because municipal coffers don't receive the financial benefits for these people from state-shared revenues based on the city's population or through property taxes, these workers should be financially penalized for their place of residence.

Linda Bohlke, field services representative for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, doesn't think much of either of these proposals. Bohlke, whose union represents blue-collar city workers, believes the suggestions are based on a lack of information.

"City employees don't make a lot," she says. "The average blue-collar worker makes $26,000. In the private sector, pay is higher. You can't leave salaries where they're at and raise medical costs. That would be a cut in pay."

Other cost-cutting suggestions made at the town halls amounted to relatively minor or one-time ideas, such as eliminating financial support for the community's public-access TV station, along with the KIDCO after-school program and the funding for all outside agencies supported by the city. The $16,650 price of the city's annual report distributed through the newspaper last year has also been mentioned, but it may be eliminated anyway if federal funds can't be obtained to cover its cost.

One town hall participant even complained about the price of the city's new logo. But the design was done in-house, and only placed on stationary and other items when the old supply ran out.

There are no simple solutions, but the city's financial predicament is not unusual. The council can either raise taxes, cut spending or just hope for the best.

When confronting difficult situations like this, politicians usually chose the latter option. So it won't be surprising if doing nothing isn't the Tucson City Council's response to the current crisis.

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