Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

City Council needs to cut programs and lay off staff to balance budget

Poor Mike Letcher. The Tucson city manager keeps trying to balance the city’s budget but the city council keeps hiding under the covers and telling him to try again.

Oh, sure, the council has cut millions out of the budget the past two years, mostly by nickel-and-diming the city staff with pay freezes, pay cuts, furloughs and a handful of layoffs.

But that hasn’t been enough, next year’s budget is still out of whack by more than $30 million.

It didn’t have to be this way. The last city manager, Mike Hein, the guy the council fired, predicted these tough times back in 2008 and gave the council some bitter pills to swallow, among them the elimination of numerous city programs, closing some city facilities and reductions in staff.

The layoffs were the key because the city charter requires public votes on significant tax increases and voters are in no mood to up their taxes. The overwhelming majority of the city’s general operating budget goes to staff salaries. If the council had significantly pared city services and staff back then, it would still be realizing those savings now.

There would still be a large budget hole to fill, thanks to shortsighted voters yanking $20 million out of this year’s budget by failing to pass the Home Rule option in November. But if the council had taken its medicine back in early 2009, it could cover the Home Rule hole with some of the piddly stuff that they’ve been doing in the past year, rather than still facing the yawning gap that menaces the fiscal 2011 budget.

Letcher has managed to trim some city staff, but the council in January told him they don’t want any more layoffs, especially not from the public safety agencies, which account for two thirds of city discretionary spending.

So Letcher, his hands tied, is trying again. This week he proposed several budget balancing measures, most of them awful, some more so than others.

The worst is proposing to add food to the sales tax list. In a city where the majority of residents have household incomes hovering around the federal poverty line, taxing food is a horrendous idea.

So is eliminating the bus fare subsidies given to nonprofit agencies that serve the poor, disabled or otherwise disadvantaged. Stickin’ it to the poor and disabled is a terrible way to balance a budget.

Mortgaging city hall, a page torn out of the discredited state Legislature’s playbook, is also a dumb idea. Why should Tucson taxpayers of 2030 have to pay the interest on a loan taken out in 2010 by a city council too chicken to make tough budget decisions?

Other ideas, though, aren’t bad, such as creating a jail-tax district. The city pays the county about $8 million a year for jail services. A special taxing district would raise the money to cover that, thereby relieving the general fund of the burden.

The tax would have the added benefit of forcing taxpayers to pay attention to criminal justice issues. Lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key policies are expensive. A tax directly connected to those policies would drive that point home.

Privatizing the golf courses and adding UA student purchases to the sales tax list (why weren’t they taxed in the first place?) are also decent ideas.

But the good ideas don’t balance the budget. Neither do the bad ones. The city will need them all, or nearly all, to close the gap.

It’s a sure bet some or all of these proposals will bring out the angry mobs, just as the last batch of budget-balancing proposals did. And that means a parade of people at council public hearings taking their three minutes at the podium to tell the council members they suck.

But the council can’t keep caving in to constituent pressure in which one constituency wants the budget balanced on the backs of some other constituency.

There are no easy, painless ways to balance the city budget. The city needs to look to itself to solve its budget problem. The council needs to buck up and cut city spending. That means eliminating programs and laying off staff – cops and firefighters included.

From there, it can relax and take its time rebuilding the budget from the ruins. That means going to voters with charter revisions to improve the city’s budgeting process and diversify its income so it’s not constantly at the mercy of the economy.

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