It's Your Money

The Tucson City Council Gears Up For Budget Fun!
By Dave Devine 

IN THE PAST year, Tucson taxpayers have heard more poor-mouthing from their City Council representatives than usual. Yet in the next fiscal year, the Council members may be padding their own office budgets to the tune of almost $200,000.

The cry of "we just don't have enough" has been used to explain why more abandoned buildings in the city couldn't be demolished. It was also one of the reasons offered for why regular trash pickups are now being made in front of homes instead of in alleys.

A lack of funds was the explanation used by a majority of the Council for voting to raise bus fares. It was even the excuse for the embarrassing spectacle of the Tucson Fire Department resorting to a hokey KGUN-TV telethon to raise money for one pair of smoke-vision goggles.

The perceived lack of money is why Council members Shirley Scott and Michael Crawford say they're pushing for a bus-shelter advertising program. Even though this same proposal was killed recently by the Pima County Board of Supervisors, Crawford and Scott say they're still seriously considering it as a way to raise revenue for the city.

The loudly lamented lack of funds will also be the probable reason given for why the Council cannot address the 6 percent pay increase requested by Tucson police officers. This request is legitimate because cops have gotten the pay shaft ever since the city abandoned a market-based wage scheme several years ago, choosing instead to go with a more politically correct across-the-board pay plan. But the increase will almost certainly be denied because of a shortage of money.

But despite its protestations of poverty, the Council has, of course, in the last year or so voted to spend millions on Civano, the so-called solar village. It has spent more millions on improvements to Hi Corbett Field to benefit a few weeks of spring training baseball games. Plus, it's provided funds for both the Copper Bowl football game and the El Tour de Tucson bicycle race.

When the Council members begin their deliberations May 5 on City Manager Luis Gutierrez's recommended budget for the next fiscal year, they'll be looking at some economic projections which belie their "taxpayers-lend-us-a-dime" attitude.

Primary among these is the Council's spending on itself. The elected officials will consider raising spending for their own office budgets by more than $185,000, or a 10 percent increase over the present fiscal year. Most of this additional money would go toward hiring more staff for each office--people needed to attend meaningless meetings and social functions the Council members themselves want to avoid.

While Crawford has the highest office budget, Scott, Steve Leal and Molly McKasson have the largest increases in the next fiscal year. Each is asking for more than a double-digit percentage increase.

McKasson justifies the additional funds based on a greater demand for constituent services. Leal says he'll remove $1,000 in travel money from his recommended total and won't fill the funded additional part-time staff position. That would make Leal's budget, along with that of Janet Marcus', the lowest among the six Council offices.

Scott also pledges she won't hire the extra part-time person authorized for her office. Instead, she says, she may use some of the allocated funds to travel to meetings of the Community and Economic Development Steering Committee of the National League of Cities, of which she's a member.

The recommended budget also shows that Mayor George Miller, once considered a frugal politician, will overspend his $392,000 office budget this fiscal year by $11,000. What kind of message does Miller's lack of restraint send to other city offices and departments?

Among the harsh realities revealed in the recommended budget is that the Council's 4-3 vote last year to raise bus fares, in hopes of increasing revenue from passengers, has backfired. Gutierrez's spending plan estimates Sun Tran fare receipts will plummet by almost $200,000 during the coming year, despite the fare hike. So maybe the Council should go back to the old fare schedule in order to raise some money.

Another hefty chunk in the budget is $250,000 to pay the University of Arizona for the Microsoft deal. This money is included even though the Council has never approved an agreement, and even though Microsoft has left town. With a majority of the Council now apparently opposed to keeping these funds in the budget, how will this money be spent? Scott, a key vote in the eventual decision on this issue, says she'd prefer to see the Microsoft money reallocated to something else. Leal wants to use it to support job-training programs. McKasson would like to see the funds go to increased bus service.

Also, City Manager Gutierrez has not included funding for the Copper Bowl among his recommendations. So if the Council wants to subsidize the football game again, once more it will have to take the money out of its own contingency fund.

The Council is also being asked to add 150 new employees to the current city total of 5,250. Most of these newcomers would be police, fire, and development service employees needed to provide support for newly annexed areas. The only substantial gains for current city residents would be the additional Parks and Recreation employees at the El Rio and El Pueblo neighborhood centers. Plus, of course, those extra people in each Council office.

So will the City Council consider cutting some things, like its own office budgets, to fund raises for cops and the demolition of more abandoned houses?

The next few weeks will tell, but don't put any money on it. TW

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