Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Council shuns responsibility as city budget woes worsen

Mike Hein answers questions on the budget during a March 24 City Council meeting. In the background is Mayor Bob Walkup.

Mike Hein answers questions on the budget during a March 24 City Council meeting. In the background is Mayor Bob Walkup.

The city of Tucson is drifting toward its worst budget crisis ever, but City Council members seem unwilling to do more than point fingers.

The city is looking at an $80 million revenue shortfall this fiscal year and a shortfall that big or larger for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

Some council members are determined to blame City Manager Mike Hein for not fixing the problem. The real culprits, however, council members will find in the mirror.

The council next week will conduct an annual evaluation of Hein’s performance and decide if he should be retained. But if a majority of the council decides Hein should go – and that is a possibility – that will do nothing to solve the budget problems or put the city on firmer financial footing.

Tucson operates under a manager-council form of government in which the elected mayor and council set policy and the appointed manager works with the staff to implement it. In budget matters, it should be up to Hein to propose possible solutions to council members, then act as they decide.

But they won’t decide.

As early as January 2008 – 14 months ago – Hein warned of fiscal problems and gave the council a list of agencies that could see reduced city support. The council didn’t act on that until October – nine months later.

In the meantime, Hein took other steps including proposing higher bus fares to raise $1 million. The council rejected that idea and threatened to fire Hein before voting unanimously to support him – but not raise the fares.

Last month, as the budget outlook worsened, Hein proposed another series of cuts. The council said it would support them, then last week said they wanted to think about it more.

Hein last month also proposed possible increases in taxes and fees and asked the council to pick $5 million worth. Nothing has happened.

While all this has been going on, the council discussed suspending impact fees, then decided to study it, then ignored the study. Some council members threatened to remove Hein from oversight of the Rio Nuevo downtown development project, then changed their minds. And the council decided to start over on a search for a new police chief after the candidates had met with residents and local groups and Hein had picked four finalists.

The pattern has been set: Hein asks for council direction, no direction is set, the council tells Hein to figure out how to proceed, Hein does that, the council criticizes him.

If council members had set clear direction when Hein first brought budget problems to them, cuts could have been put in place sooner and the city would be in a better position now going into next fiscal year.

None of this is the fault of Mike Hein. Council members need to look at their job description – setting policy – and start doing that.

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