Attack of the Budget Zombies!

When It Comes To Spending Taxpayer Money On Fewer Services And Higher Pay For Already Highly Paid City Workers, The Tucson City Council Will Probably Mindlessly Obey City Manager Michael Brown.
By Dave Devine

IN A BOOMING voice that recalled a thunderstorm, the late Joseph I. Brown, concerned citizen, would introduce himself to the Tucson City Council each year at the annual public hearing on the city's budget. Then he'd proceed to rip them a new one for what they were about to adopt and plead with them to use the power they possessed to change the budget.

But his advice was always ignored. Instead, the Council would approve the budget, with very few changes, as submitted by the City Manager.

In fact, for at least a generation, each year's City Council has demonstrated a reluctance to substantially alter the recommended budget presented to them. They've also failed either to cut or eliminate almost any program or project once it has been funded. Instead, year after year, anachronistic programs continue simply because the political will to reduce or get rid of them does not exist.

Part of this reluctance to drop things from the budget has to do with the council's generally poor knowledge of the funding process. While some members, like former Mayor Tom Volgy, were known to spend hours studying the budget in order to recommend important changes, many other council members didn't bother taking the time to read the hundreds of pages of detailed material. Instead, they'd simply leaf through the document at a council meeting, looking for a point to pounce on in order to get quoted in the next day's newspaper.

The result of this acquiescence of power concerning the city's finances, combined with the unwillingness to cut programs, has been a slow reduction in the quality of city services.

Whether it's demonstrated by the 23 fewer positions today in the Street Maintenance Division compared to 10 years ago, or in the decision by the Police Department to mail out forms in response to some crimes instead of sending an officer, the city's standards of service are declining.

Other examples include a reduction in nighttime bus routes, the elimination of hundreds of riders from the Van Tran special-needs transportation system, the plans to go to once-a-week garbage collection, and the biggest change of all, the introduction of poor-quality CAP water into our homes.

Image Under present City Manager Michael Brown, this trend has accelerated as he has attempted to increase city workers' pay. City employees have seen both annual "merit" increases and across-the-board pay raises under Brown. They've also benefited from increased spending on training and technological improvements. At the same time, funding for youth programs has increased dramatically as the Council responded to the juvenile crime wave and political pressure.

Meanwhile, many city taxes and fees haven't been raised to keep up with inflation or the growth of the community, so when it came to paying for employee salary increases--a high priority these days--something had to give, and that was, unfortunately, the level of services being provided by city government. And while some people have complained about it, the pattern continues.

THIS GRADUAL SHIFT of financial resources toward city employees and away from the community has been softened by the economic good times of the last few years. But these appear to be ending, and Brown has told the Council tough choices will have to be made, starting with next fiscal year's $390-million operating budget.

For this budget, which begins July 1, Brown has estimated there will be more than $5 million in additional revenue available to spend over the current year. At the same time, he believes in excess of $16 million in new costs will be required. More than one-half of these new expenses are planned to provide substantial pay increases to city employees.

To eliminate the deficit these differences create, Brown has floated the idea of several tax and fee increases or a general 4 percent across-the-board reduction in every city department's budget. The Council has discussed some fee increases, including a tax on waste haulers, raising the cost of a bus ride and charging businesses for required fire inspections. Also being looked at are getting full cost recovery from Tucson Water capital services and raising the amount paid by public housing tenants.

Combined, however, these increases would raise only a few million dollars in new revenue. Thus, the Council apparently will leave the bulk of the budget-balancing process, the difficult decisions, up to Brown.

While he's known as a tax-and-spender who's uncomfortable with cutting budgets, Brown has not supported the current move by some council members to make new development pay its own way. When it was proposed that rezoning and zoning variance fees be raised to full-cost recovery levels in some parts of the city, Brown opposed the idea.

He concluded this move would place the city "in a non-competitive position for economic development." Even though the amount of these fee increases would total only $77,000 for the next fiscal year, apparently Brown thought this would drive some new development outside the city limits. Therefore, he supports having taxpayers continue to subsidize these costs.

Brown's decision on how to balance the budget will affect the city for years to come, because, as he's pointed out to the Council, the growth in sales tax revenues is slowing and "the local economy has shown considerable weakness to the point that if we are not now in a mild local recession, we may enter one soon." Because sales tax receipts account for nearly half of the city's general fund revenues each year, an economic slowdown causes severe problems for the city budget.

Compounding this problem are anticipated cuts in federal funds received by the city for public housing and the bus system. In addition, the enormous costs associated with environmental mitigation at the city's landfills must be addressed.

There is also pressure to increase the city's savings account, now totaling $9 million. Some in City Hall believe this amount should be raised in order to strengthen the city's bond rating for capital improvements. A better bond rating, they argue, would lower the interest rate charged to the city for bonds, thus saving taxpayer money.

One factor which can help balance the city budget is the anticipated savings of $5.7 million from the last two fiscal years. These funds, which partially came from reducing the level of service provided to the community, can be used either to balance the budget or to increase the savings account.

All of these factors will influence the recommended budget for Fiscal Year 1996-'97 which Brown presents to the Council on April 15. Most anticipate it will be a status quo document with most new spending being directed at employee raises.

City Council members believe Brown will recommend increases in landfill mitigation and youth programs. There also may be some new positions authorized for the Police Department, but most of them won't be traditional police officers. Instead, the concept of "community service officers," people who are not full-fledged cops, and who are paid less, is expected to be proposed.

Meanwhile, several City Council members have separately proclaimed their support for including in the budget increases in the amount spent in existing city neighborhoods. Ward 6 Councilwoman, Molly McKasson, who has opposed most of the six city budgets she has voted on, believes this year the Council may support more money for things like sidewalks and street maintenance.

To pay for these improvements, along with adding more police officers and addressing the city's pressing landfill remediation needs, McKasson favors several budget cuts. She would like to use some of the savings from past year's budgets, reduce the City Manager's "slush" fund and combine these savings with reductions in the proposed employee raises to address these issues. Instead of granting across-the-board pay increases, she favors increasing the amount given to those at the lower end of the pay scale, while decreasing raises for higher-paid positions.

She'll also push for reallocation of funds from the Economic Development Department. "Community reinvestment is economic development," McKasson says, "and our dollars will go further if we encourage neighborhoods to get involved with deciding how the money should be spent."

Despite her years of unsuccessfully proposing budget cuts and reallocations, McKasson still sounds hopeful that some of her ideas will be adopted. But she admits that after trying and failing to reduce the multi-million dollar bonus given to longtime city employees and failing to reduce other costly programs, she has to be more politically realistic about what a majority of the Council will accept. But she remains optimistic that this year the City Council will, at least slightly, change the Manager's recommended budget and look at reinvesting in the existing community.

She may have reason for that optimism. Steve Leal, José Ibarra and Shirley Scott in the past have indicated their support for doing more for city residents. Scott believes some of these changes can be paid for through more efficient use of city employees' time, like the four-day, 10-hour schedule recently proposed for garbage collectors.

Having campaigned on a pledge to support hiring 25 more police officers in the coming fiscal year, Scott favors the idea of hiring 12 regular cops and 24 community service officers. She's willing to cut employee pay raises to get them. "I am aware that city employees are being asked to do more," she says, "but I will support more police officers before voting for across-the-board pay raises."

Another view of the budget will be presented to the Council on April 15 by its Budget Advisory Committee. This group of citizens meets regularly to review the city staff's budget requests and to make independent recommendations to the City Council.

While admitting many of the group's past suggestions have been ignored, current committee chair Karin Uhlich believes it still serves a useful function. "We are instigators of discussion about issues," she says, "not action takers. What makes sense to us, may not make good politics," but the discussion is healthy, she argues.

This year the committee has focused on three issues it wants the City Council to address. Uhlich said the crisis management situation in dealing with landfill remediation and other environmental problems must be changed, the need to raise additional revenues should be addressed and a secure funding source for affordable housing has to be developed.

"The budget outlook in five to 10 years is bleak," Uhlich says, "and we must discuss these issues now. Crisis management is a threat to this community, and poor budget planning cannot lead to a better quality of life." But, she added, in her opinion politics sometimes prevents goods budget planning.

Of course, the members of the City Council are all politicians, so they'll make decisions with the voters' likely response in mind. This, plus the reluctance of the Council to greatly alter the City Manager's recommended budget, will probably mean the document presented on April 15 will be adopted by them in June.

Which will mean a few taxes will be raised, services will continue to decline slightly next year and city employees will be paid more than their counterparts in the private sector in Tucson.

The public, however, has an opportunity to comment on how its money will be spent before this is a fait accompli. The Council will hold a public hearing on the night of April 22 to let the taxpayers have their say on the Manager's recommended budget. In the past these sessions have been very poorly attended, probably because people don't think they can affect the process.

If the past two decades of budgetary preparation is any indication, they're probably right.


HERE ARE A few suggestions to change next fiscal year's city budget to save money so that services cut in the past can be restored:

1. Sell all City Council offices and replace them with donated, used RV's. The recent forced purchase of an office for Councilwoman Molly McKasson at a cost of $265,000 indicates how much could be raised by this change. Plus, implementation of the idea would help to bring the council members closer to their constituents, since they could always be on the move checking on citizen complaints.

2. Eliminate many employee training classes, such as "Effective Whole Brain Communication," because the city just needs to stop hiring people with no brains. At the same time, require a class entitled "Dealing with Temper Tantrums and Enormous Egos" to be taken by all upper-level managers who will be in contact with City Manager Michael Brown.

3. Stop funding baseball stadiums, the Copper Bowl, bicycle races and other sports-related activities. Use the money for something more productive, like hiring more cops.

4. Sell the city's TV station, Cable Channel 12. While insomniacs may complain, no one else will--because hardly anybody watches it.

5. Save $4,000 by not funding the "taste and odor" consultant that Tucson Water wants to employ. Have George Miller do the job instead.

6. Declare the annexation program, Project Foresight (a.k.a. Developer's Bailout), a complete success and shut it down. Among other things, this would save the $20,000 proposed to provide marketing expertise to this bogus program.

7. Impose a special rental tax on traffic island median space used by the homeless. In addition, ensure that each person with his hand out has a city business license. Use the proceeds to lower the primary property tax rate on fixed-income households.

8. Eliminate the weekly "City Page" in the daily newspaper, or at least rename it the "Propaganda Page."

9. Do away with Sun Tran's Fourth Avenue shuttle, since next to no one rides it. Have the appropriate council member provide rides in their new RV office (No. 1) to the few people who need them.

10. Approve a none-a-week garbage pick-up schedule. This will save millions now spent on collection, plus it'll really encourage recycling.

11. Require each of the hundreds of city employees who live outside the city limits to pay an annual $500 surcharge. These funds would help to cover the city's loss of state revenue because these employees aren't residents.

12. Privatize the Police Department and require neighborhood associations to assist in patrolling their own areas. Not only would this help to implement the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) philosophy in Tucson, but it would also give new meaning to the term "Community Policing."

13. Send the bill for the latest money-draining Convention Center expansion to former City Manager Joel Valdez and the members of the City Council that approved it. The voters overwhelmingly opposed this expansion, but it was done anyway. So let those who authorized and arranged for it pay the tab.

14. Don't spend $750,000 on a consultant to "evaluate a proposed Enhanced (Water) Treatment Plant," an idea that hasn't even been discussed much. Why not use the money instead to recharge CAP water, like the voters told the City Council to do?

15. Finally, in the spirit of increasing services to the community, eliminate the paid day off city employees take for their birthdays. It's time to blow out the candles on this giveaway.

--Dave Devine TW

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