Council gets earful on plan to balance city budget
The 500 audience seats for the Tucson City Council’s budget hearing Tuesday were full before the meeting started.
Another 200 or so anxious commenters gathered along the walls, in the hallway and in the lobby of the Tucson Convention Center, waiting for a chance to have their say. Or at least watch or wave signs, perhaps clap or, perhaps more likely, boo.
A loud chorus of boos ushered the public hearing from a spot at the end of the night’s agenda to the top of the list of regular agenda items.
About 120 people turned in cards to speak. The turnout was largely to voice opposition to about $17.4 million in new or increased taxes in the city budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. About $10 million of that amount is anticipated to come from a tax on residential rental property.
About a third of the crowd wore red, a statement of solidarity against taxes in general and the proposed rental tax in particular.
Some in red were allied with the organizers of the Tucson Tea Party, which rallied 3,000 to protest taxes in front of City Hall last month.
Others wore red for the coalition of housing associations arguing that the tax would affect the poorest Tucsonans at a time they can least afford to pay.
Stories of economic woe followed one after the other. Some speakers were in tears. Others made jokes about considering eating cat food.
“Now I can’t afford to be sick,” said Reuben Hart, a disabled veteran with cats he said are better fed than him. “I’m sick of it.”
For others, the case was simple, even impersonal. “I don’t want to pay any more taxes,” Mikki Niemi said. “They could cut pay 10 percent and get rid of take-home cars, then ask for more taxes.”
Trent Humphries, an organizer of the Tucson Tea Party, opposes all the tax and fee increases, saying none addresses business infrastructure.
“They just want their slush funds,” he said of the council. “If we took care of the spending problem, we wouldn’t have to (raise taxes).”
Dale Bieber, a retiree on a fixed income, explained his process of dealing with the economic downturn and recommended the council follow his lead.
“I couldn’t increase my income because it’s fixed,” he said. “So I had to cut my costs. I learned the difference between needs and wants, and I wonder if you’ve learned the difference between needs and wants.”
Several speakers asked the council to personally demonstrate the sacrifice they’ve requested of city employees and residents.
Some suggested the council take a 2 percent pay cut to match the 2 percent rental tax.
John Kromko, a longtime local activist who is putting together a petition that would try to force a repeal of the proposed rental tax, suggested city employees and the council take a cut of 1 percent for every $10,000 in pay, a savings plan similar to that put in place by South Tucson’s government.
James King, a self-described city “garbage guy,” asked, “What will you do for us?” He described his own compromises: five days of furlough, higher benefit payments, more for rent.
Bob Klug, who owns three rental properties, worried he wouldn’t be able to pass on the tax to renters.
He and several others suggested that a large proportion of landlords fail to report rental property income now and are less likely to if they have to pay more taxes.
“Are you going to have overworked police crashing apartments?” Klug asked.
City Finance Director Silvia Amparano said in a fact sheet released Monday that enforcement would match that of businesses that pay sales tax.
Melanie Morrison of the Arizona Multihousing Association said the issue of tax evasion was likely to make those who pay the lowest rent – those who rent at complexes rather than in single-family homes – shoulder the heaviest tax burden.
“(Landlords who own fewer properties) are more likely to skirt the tax because they’re less visible,” she said.
Under the proposal, landlords with more than three properties in Arizona, at least one in Tucson, would have to get a business license and collect the tax.
Officials estimate that a renter who pays $600 a month would pay about $144 more a year. The estimate does not take into account an administrative cost.
Though opposition was stiff, suggestions other than council sacrifice were sparse.
Melanie Nelson of the Pima County Interfaith Council, whose causes – KIDCO, an afterschool program; School Plus Jobs, a youth employment program; and Job Path, a training program – stand to benefit from the tax increases said, “This is why we encouraged them to start early with a public process.”
Another public hearing on the budget will be held May 5.