Guest Commentary

Tucson Parks and Rec head: We need the half-cent sales tax boost to maintain services

One of the many important questions voters will be asked when they go to the polls on Nov. 2 is whether to support Proposition 400. It is not an easy choice in these tough economic times.

Proposition 400 will temporarily increase the cap on the city's sales tax by half a percent to protect the city's "core services"—public safety, transportation, and Parks and Recreation. Without this additional revenue, the city will be forced to make significant cuts to these services.

In Parks and Recreation, the department I oversee, the cuts will be dramatic. This is because we've already made significant cuts in the past two years, and we will now have to cut further. We've already closed half of all swimming pools, closed a recreation center, reduced hours at all recreation centers, decreased the number of leisure classes, and eliminated teen programming and most adult sports. If Prop 400 passes, we won't be able to restore these cuts, but it will prevent further ones. Without the additional city revenue, more facility closures and program eliminations will become necessary.

How did we get here, and why are we asking voters to approve higher taxes during tough economic times? Since the economic crash hit three years ago, the city has lost more than $70 million in sales-tax and state-shared revenue—the funds used to support Parks and Recreation. The city tried to address recent budget deficits in ways that would least impact services to residents—by cutting overhead and lower-priority services, and focusing on efficiencies and one-time fixes. This was done in the hope that revenues would improve, and services could continue. But the economy has still not recovered, and revenues have not improved. The city faces a $51 million deficit next year, and the cuts that will be required to address this deficit will be significant.

In my job as Parks and Recreation director, I see on a daily basis firsthand how Parks and Recreation enhances the lives of our citizens and community. Parks and Recreation services are often cited as one of the most important factors in surveys of how livable communities are. Parks provide gathering places for families and social groups, as well as for individuals of all ages and economic status, regardless of their ability to pay for access.

Tucsonans have strongly supported Parks and Recreation over the years. The City of Tucson Parks and Recreation Department became a City Charter-recognized department in November 1961 and is weeks away from becoming one of fewer than 100 departments in the nation to receive national accreditation from the Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies. The department currently operates and maintains 128 parks and facilities on 4,000 acres of park land, including 16 recreation centers, three senior centers, three tennis centers, 27 swimming pools, five golf courses, three tennis centers, the nationally accredited Reid Park Zoo, three urban fishing lakes, six off-leash dog parks, nature/urban trails and 510 sports fields and courts. In addition, the department offers more than 1,100 leisure/instructional programs, 47 after-school and 62 summer-recreation-program sites, 500 swimming-lesson classes, and 40 adult softball leagues. It facilitates more than 200 special, civic and performing arts events attracting more than 700,000 participants annually.

In recent years, our department has taken steps to recover additional costs through increased fees to help pay for services, and customers have demonstrated their willingness to pay for the services we provide. We can perhaps recover some additional costs—but only to a point. Many of the services we provide—open space, for example—do not generate revenue. They are public goods, free for all to enjoy. In addition, many of our programs and facilities are used by youth, seniors and low-income residents. We must be careful when we raise fees that we don't drive away these valued customers.

The citizens of Tucson have a choice to make on Nov. 2 regarding the kind of city they want to see in the future. Are residents willing to 50 cents more on a $100 purchase to maintain Parks and Recreation programs and facilities, along with public safety and transportation? The additional revenue generated by the temporary sales tax will provide budgetary relief over a five-year period to maintain the current services that Tucsonans receive from the city.

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