To the Core

Tucson voters are being asked to approve a sales-tax hike

The Tucson City Council has a big request for voters this November: a hike of a half-cent per dollar in the sales tax.

And this request for a five-year "core tax" comes just months after voters approved a one-cent sales tax across the state. If Prop 400 passes, the sales tax inside the city of Tucson will climb to 9.6 percent.

Ward 1 Councilwoman Regina Romero says she was reluctant to put the question on the ballot.

"It was a very hard decision for me," Romero says. "I wish we would have been able to come up with other solutions. But I see the facts, and I see the numbers."

City Manager Mike Letcher says the city has little choice but to ask voters for a sales-tax hike, which is expected to raise $40 million per year.

The city's revenues have plummeted. In fiscal year 2007, the city collected $202.3 million in sales taxes; in fiscal year 2010, that number was projected to drop to $159 million, according to city officials.

"The problem that we have is not an expenditure problem," Letcher says. "It's a revenue problem."

But Shaun McClusky, who made his political debut last year with an unsuccessful run for the Tucson City Council, says voters should reject the tax.

"Have you not seen all the ever-present waste that continues to go on in our city government?" says McClusky, who wants the city to tighten its belt rather than raise taxes.

Letcher argues that the city has indeed been tightening its belt to deal with what he says is the loss of $70 million in annual revenues: 600 positions have been eliminated; 130 positions for police officers have not been filled; 17 swimming pools have been closed; street-repair programs have been halted; adult sports programs have been eliminated (except for slow-pitch softball and programs for teens); the Ormsby Recreation Center has been closed; funding for outside agencies such as the Tucson Pima Arts Council and Access Tucson have been slashed; and the list goes on.

Meanwhile, fees have increased for parks and recreation programs, trash collection, development services and bus fares.

Still, it hasn't been enough. The city's general fund is facing a projected $51 million shortfall next year. Even if the core tax passes, the city will face a deficit of roughly $10 million.

Last week, the City Council considered steps to address that shortfall, including a 15 percent cut to most city departments (although police, fire, parks and transportation were spared); cutbacks to or the elimination of Channel 12, the city's cable-TV station that broadcasts City Council meetings and positive programming about the city; and the elimination of all funding for Access Tucson, the city's public-access TV station.

However, McClusky wants to see more cuts. He suggests laying off department heads and merging their responsibilities.

"Look at your department heads, and see where you can consolidate, and treat it like corporate America," says McClusky, who also suggests more cuts to funding for the nonprofit Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau; getting rid of recreation programs that are also offered by the private sector; installing timers on the lights at the Reid Park tennis courts to save on the electric bill; and reducing salaries of high-paid city officials.

McClusky complains that the city raised its budget last year, from $1.29 billion to 1.3 billion. But Letcher points out that those increases were in the city's capital-improvements budget, which includes funds that are earmarked for specific uses, such as one-time construction projects.

"They're making a huge mistake," says Letcher. "I can't use that money in the general fund."

The city's general fund—the account that pays for the day-to-day operation of the city, including the expenses of police, fire, transportation and parks—actually dropped from $459 million last year to $442 million this year.

And without the core tax, much deeper cuts are on the horizon.

"If people think there is a magic bullet where we're going to pull $51 million out of a hat and make all of this go away, that's not going to happen," Letcher says.