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Budget hearing Thursday

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Posted: Tuesday, February 16, 2010 12:00 am

Libraries shut on Fridays, fewer hours at community centers, layoff of staff, reduced maintenance for parks and city streets, and cuts to ALEX and all neighborhood circulators are in the draft budget that is up for public comment at 6 p.m. Thursday during a public budget hearing at Pecos Park Community Center.

But for some people, this year’s proposed budget cuts of $70 million to $140 million, after last year’s cuts of $150 million and the previous year’s cuts that have totaled more than $600 million in nine of the last 10 budget years, has raised questions about when or if the city will break out of the cycle of declining revenues and increasing expenses.

“If we don’t take care of this problem today, by working on a strategic plan and reducing labor cost, we will have the same problem next year and the year after that,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio said.

Up to now, much of what he has said has fallen on deaf ears, but a new community organization, Citizens for Phoenix, may help change that.

“This process is a failure,” said Greta Rogers of Ahwatukee Foothills who helped organize Citizens of Phoenix several months ago to push the city into doing more than simply continuing business as usual.

The group is calling for a major audit to determine why the city has not been able to keep expenses and income balanced during the past decade, when the economy was, generally speaking, robust and expanding.

Rogers also said it is time the city shift from cutting budgets for the most vulnerable citizens and instead focus on the nice-to-have services that the city can’t afford.

“They always look to the most vulnerable citizens to cut, and they don’t look within the organizational structure,” she said.

For Rogers, and many people, keeping police and fire on the streets is more important than spending millions city-wide for free neighborhood circulator buses, like ALEX.

“We don’t have the $7 million to spend, to give away, on a free service,” Rogers said.

She also would slash salaries and benefits starting with the council and mayor.

That’s a message DiCiccio also has been spreading.

He said that labor costs, which include salaries and benefits, have risen to the point where the city cannot afford the bill.

“Take my salary. As a councilman I make $61,000. You almost double that for the benefits,” DiCiccio said, adding that while many city employees earn less than $50,000 a year, the average cost to the city for an employee, including insurance, retirement and all benefits, is almost $100,000 a year.

This year all the major unions that represent city workers, including police and fire, are looking at taking pay cuts equal to 3.2 percent.

And DiCiccio has volunteered to double whatever pay cut the unions take, up to 10 percent.

The original draft budget included $140 million in reductions that included closing five senior centers, including the Pecos Park center, and cutting 1,300 employees, including police officers and firefighters.

In the last two weeks, the City Council has approved extending the city’s current 2 percent sales tax onto food, starting April 1, which could raise $62 million this year and will be used to keep the senior and community centers open and reduce the number of public safety layoffs. And labor unions are looking at pay cuts, which could also generate millions in cost savings and could reduce even more the number of employees cut from the budget.

But details on which staff and programs will be spared remains vague and could change as city officials take public input from 15 public hearings, which began last week.

Once the public hearings are completed, city staff will revise the budget, which will then go to the City Council for final approval.

For more information on Citizens for Phoenix visit www.citizensforphoenix.org.

Phoenix budget information is available at www.phoenix.gov.

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