The headlines have become a regular staple as governments at all levels seek to deal with lower-than-expected revenues:
• Diversion of repair funds hurts schools; districts struggle to find money for maintenance
• City may cut funding to tourist, economic, social service groups
• Budget cut makes crime lab charge for many services
That’s just a sampling from the past few days. But there have been many more such stories of governments forced to cut services.
The cuts are nowhere near done, as economic forecasters say expectations for the current fiscal year are proving to be far from rosy. And fiscal 2010 doesn’t look much better.
But as elected officials from Tucson, Pima County and the state of Arizona gird themselves to make cuts, they must devote thought to the task ahead and approach it strategically.
Government has a responsibility to provide basic services. Public safety, health and welfare, education and infrastructure are the underpinnings. Other services are important, but they are not in that top tier.
For that reason, we eschew calls by some elected officials to make across-the-board cuts to government agencies. Yes, that is easy and doesn’t require a lot of thought. And yes, it is politically expedient because all oxen are equally gored.
But that’s not why we seek to elect bright people to office. That’s not the best way to pare down government so it can return to strength when the economy recovers.
So how can this be translated to some of the tough calls that must be made by those we elected to public office?
In the above examples, funding to schools and to crime labs must be retained to the fullest extent possible. It is unacceptable for crimes not to be fully investigated and prosecuted because of crime lab costs. It is unacceptable for students to be exposed to possibly unsafe and dangerous conditions because essential school maintenance is delayed.
At the other end of the priority scale, the city is right to look at outside agencies and social service programs as it struggles with revenue losses.
We support funding for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention & Visitors Bureau, for the Downtown Tucson Partnership and for Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities. Parks are important, and so is the Pima Animal Care Center.
But all are targeted for cuts. The city’s primary responsibility is to provide police and fire services and an infrastructure of roads and water lines. When push comes to shove – and it has – those primary services must be maintained.
When revenues are down, spending must be cut. But it must be cut intelligently with a scalpel, not indiscriminantly with an ax.