Before last week’s public hearing on the city’s proposed budget could get going, Councilman Sal DiCiccio blasted the proposed 2 percent sales tax on food and the city’s inability to look strategically at the budget hole, which has resulted in $140 million in proposed cuts.

“We have a structural problem that needs to be addressed,” DiCiccio told a crowd of more than 250 at Pecos Park Feb. 18.

He said that layoffs of police and firefighters, plus the closing of senior centers and youth programs was nothing more than a scare tactic to get public support for the sales tax on food, which is expected to bring in $62 million in the first 15 months.

“This budget goes after the weak, seniors and children. Of course you’ll be here to support the food tax,” he said. “The food tax does not solve our structural problem. It just throws money at the problem.”

City plans originally called for department cuts of between 15 to 30 percent, including a 14 percent reduction in public safety funding. That budget included laying off 286 police officers and 144 firefighters, plus the closing of the Pecos Park Community Center along with four others.

After the council agreed to extend the current 2 percent sales tax onto food, over DiCiccio and two other council members’ objections, 117 officers’ and 62 firefighters’ positions, plus the five senior centers were restored to the budget.

Negotiations are under way to cut the salaries of workers by 3.2 percent, but will still require some public safety and other layoffs, plus reduced hours at the community centers and libraries, shorter park hours and drastically reduced services across the board.

“It’s appalling they would use our public safety people as pawns,” said Anna Wilson, whose husband is a Phoenix police officer. “How dare the city put our officers at risk.”

And police and fire weren’t the only services that people spoke up for at last week’s hearing. Others spoke up for parks, arts, recreation and athletics, all of which will be reduced with or without the sales tax on food.

The one thing that almost everyone could agree on was the city has a major structural problem: balancing sales tax income to the general fund, with rising expenses.

“The city cannot operate the way they have,” said Earl Williams.

DiCiccio held up a document that he said he had submitted to the city’s Innovation and Efficiency Task Force, which he said hadn’t even looked at the suggestions.

The document includes articles on privatization, examples of what other cities have done and ways to open public services to private competition.

DiCiccio said he believes that the city could save enough money through efficiency and contracting out services to make the budget balance, but conceded that at this point, with the recommended budget being released Thursday, there probably isn’t time to find major savings in the next few days.

The City Council has scheduled a March 2 vote on the budget. Layoff notices would then go out, and the budget would take effect April 5.

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