Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Tucson can’t balance its budget without layoffs

The city of Tucson can’t balance its general fund budget this year or next without laying off city staff, including police officers and firefighters.

That’s the hard truth.

Unfortunately, most of the city council doesn’t want to face it. They want City Manager Mike Letcher to “find” other ways to close a $32 million budget gap this year and an expected $73 million budget imbalance next fiscal year (which would only be about $40 million if this year’s cuts are such that they carry over into next year). The new fiscal year starts July 1.

But salaries and benefits, such as health insurance premiums, account for 70 percent of the city’s roughly $420 million general fund, which pays for police, fire, public transportation, parks and recreation and numerous smaller programs. Public safety is costing the city about $270 million this year, or about 64 percent of the general fund.

At Tuesday’s council study session, where the council heard a 30-minute presentation by Letcher and his staff on how he intends to plug the budget holes, Mayor Bob Walkup and council members Karin Uhlich and Regina Romero, through a cockamamie statement of principles the two released before the meeting, said they didn’t want any layoffs.

They’d rather see pay reductions, though Uhlich and Romero want pay reductions that protect lower-paid employees and stick it to higher-paid employees.

Councilman Rodney Glassman, when he wasn’t needling Letcher, also made statements that indicate he would support stiffer pay cuts for high-salaried staff.

Letcher doesn’t want to do pay reductions again, mostly because the hole is so big for both this year and next that it would require an across-the-board pay cut of about 15 percent. But if some staff have to take bigger cuts than others, some of the top-paid employees would have to absorb pay reductions of 25 percent or more. A mass exodus of city management would likely follow.

The budget shouldn’t be balanced with pay cuts that will do more harm than good.

Newly minted Councilman Steve Kozachik was stuck between a Republican rock and public safety hard place at the meeting. He campaigned on public safety and support for Proposition 200, which would have greatly expanded the police and fire ranks. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

Republicans are supposed to be for less government and lower taxes. But in order to save cops and firefighters from layoffs he was forced to suggest finding ways to “grow the pie,” which is code for more tax revenue.

He wants the city to hold police and fire harmless in the budget cutting. But that would mean all other city services paid for through the general fund would have to shoulder the burden. There isn’t enough “pie” to grow in the next 18 months to solve the problem, and cutting $70 million out of the one third of the general fund not tied to public safety would essentially eviscerate city services, including parks, recreation and public transportation.

The council at the meeting faced about 200 people in the council chamber and another 300 outside in overflow rooms, mostly angry and anxious cops and firefighters and their families.

If the council proposes to protect cops and firefighters from the budget and instead balance the books on liberal sacred cow programs such as public transportation and assistance for the poor, it will face similar angry mobs demanding some other ox be gored.

There are no easy choices left. The council needs to face reality and make the hard decisions they were elected to make.

Letcher’s budget plan is sensible and equitable; the council would be wise to adopt it, layoffs and all.

Here’s what I said back in June about the city’s budget for this fiscal year: Council tax increases nothing to be proud of

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