Déjà Vu

They said the 1991 Tucson budget crunch was the worst ever. Well, 2003 looks worse.

The similarities between the first few weeks of this year and the first weeks of 1991 are striking: Bush in the White House, war pending with Iraq, national economic doldrums and a local budgetary crisis.

Twelve years ago, across two annual budget cycles, City Hall was forced to cut $30 million of its general fund expenditures. In early 1991, then-City Manager Tom Wilson said the cuts were the deepest that Tucson had ever seen.

That is, until now. City Manager James Keene characterizes the current financial problem as the grimmest the community has ever faced. He has called for $70 million in cuts during the next three years, with half of that occurring in the next fiscal year, beginning July 1.

To balance the budgets, both Wilson and Keene looked to layoffs as a first option. In 1991, 200 city jobs were initially targeted, and this year, Keene is talking about terminating 107 people while leaving another 96 positions vacant.

Like in 1991, raises for city employees are also on the chopping block. But the members of the City Council are involving themselves in budget decisions differently.

In 1991, Wilson met privately with each council member, and the consensus of that all-Democratic group was that layoffs and tax increases were not to be considered. This year, Keene has held two public sessions with the politically split council, and both layoffs and tax increases are still on the table.

But the possibility of layoffs dimmed when two council members indicated they were opposed to the idea. Steve Leal, the only remaining member from the council of 1991, and Carol West, who then served as a council aide, say they don't favor firing anyone.

With West often being the fourth vote in a council majority that includes Mayor Bob Walkup and council members Fred Ronstadt and Kathleen Dunbar, her view is particularly important.

"I've talked to the city manager about this, and he told me that if there were no raises given next year, there wouldn't have to be layoffs," says West.

Another difference in the budgetary situations is the role played by city employees. Back in 1991, the council made the decision not to lay off anyone, then informed workers at a public meeting. At the same time, they asked the employees for suggestions about how the budget should be balanced. While many of the 300 who attended that gathering weren't happy with the council's secretive process, they eventually did have a chance to share their opinions directly with the elected officials.

This year, Keene has been meeting with city employees in a "Town Hall" setting, but the possibility of a public session with the council has not been raised. West is open to the idea, but while supportive, Leal has some concerns.

"There is a climate of fear among the employees toward the city manager," Leal says. "They could be laid off if they spoke out."

Leal is also critical of the council majority and Keene's handling of the entire budgetary problem, comparing it unfavorably with 1991. Back then, he recalls, the council's reaction to Wilson's original balancing proposal was: "If that's your idea of creativity, we're taking over the process."

This year, it's a different story.

"The city manager says it's his job to figure out how to balance the budget," Leal says. "But that's not the case at all. The budget is a reflection of community values, and if proposed cuts come in places that don't square with those values, the council should be involved. Keene says that's trespassing on his authority, but we wouldn't be doing that."

One more difference between the two years is the timing of the budgetary process. By the middle of February 1991, the council had given direction that layoffs were not to be considered, and that taxes were not to be raised.

Based on that, Wilson soon came back with an outline of a balancing plan that relied heavily on service reductions and deferred maintenance. After the council formally approved this approach, the budget was prepared, publicly reviewed, further amended and adopted in June.

But this year, members of the council have said very little about the layoffs, tax increases, service reductions or other controversial proposals offered by Keene. He is, however, supposed to meet with them privately between now and March 3, when he releases his recommended spending plan. After considering it, the council is scheduled to adopt the budget in late April, well ahead of the normal cycle.

OK, enough with all of these 1991-2003 comparisons. Tucson's budget director, Ned Zolman, doesn't think that much comparing is valid. He says Tucson is far worse off this year.

"We've had a very sharp decline in tax revenues of about $11 million," he says. This is a far more demanding challenge and it's far more serious."

Eastside representative West says that while she opposes employee layoffs, she does favor some increases in user fees along with upping the primary property tax rate--even though she recognizes that move will especially hurt small businesses around town.

"In this budgetary situation, somebody has to get hurt," she says.

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