Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Tucson asking for volunteers for basic services is sad

This afternoon at City Hall Mayor Bob Walkup, City Manager Mike Letcher, the Volunteer Center of Southern Arizona and a few others will cut the ribbon on a new city program – volunteer employees.

Does that strike anyone else as sad that this is what governance has come to in Tucson, begging citizens to help provide city services?

Most cities have volunteer programs, usually to help the police department with administrative duties or unskilled functions such as checking on vacant homes through a dark house program, thereby freeing up officers to do more dangerous work.

Or to help the parks department by volunteering to coach youth sports or teach a pottery class.

But this is apparently more than that. Tucson needs help running the city.

According to a statement released last week, due to the economic downturn and the city’s response to the resultant fiscal crisis, the city’s workforce has 1,000 fewer employees than it did in 2007. Or put another way, it’s running the city with the same size workforce it had in 1997 when there were roughly 100,000 fewer people living there.

“This program is a way to keep pace with our growing community and providing continued constituent services without using additional funds from the city’s budget,” Letcher said in the statement.

Take a walk through just about any floor at city hall and you’ll think you’re passing through an office furniture warehouse – row upon row of empty cubicles. But those employees who are still there aren’t just doing their jobs and leaving the jobs that were done by the people in the vacant cubicles undone.

Nope, they’re doing those jobs, too. And they’re exhausted. Morale in the city workforce is below low; they’re too tired to have morale.

Letcher has tried getting them help. He wanted to raise bus fares and tax rents. The City Council said no. The council then asked voters for more money through a half-cent sales tax increase. City voters said no.

And so the city has laid off workers, either through actual layoffs or through fake layoffs, in which an employee quits, retires or dies and their job goes unfilled.

It’s hard to fathom how this program will have much effect or be cost effective. Eighty percent of the city budget is consumed by four departments, police, fire, parks and administration. How much help can volunteers really provide in those areas to relieve city workers of their burdens without adding more burden?

The Volunteer Center will obviously do the heavy lifting of coordinating who’s volunteering for what, when and where, but all these volunteers will need to be trained how to do whatever it is they’re doing. And that means asking city workers to add another item to their list of tasks – teaching unpaid people how to do their jobs.

The irony of that is staggering.

And so with the city council’s politics and city voters’ insistence on getting something for nothing in the way, we’ve come to this – a government begging for help.

The ever-ebullient Walkup will do his best to put a happy face on it, saying that it’s a wonderful idea and a wonderful program, getting people to work for free to keep the city running through this time of crisis.

But there’s really only one way to describe it – sad.

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