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Phoenix budget shortfall could impact Ahwatukee

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Posted: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 8:00 am

Ahwatukee Foothills could feel the continued pinch of Phoenix budget cuts in the coming months as city officials predict up to an $80 million shortfall next fiscal year, 2011-12.

"Ahwatukee is part of the city of Phoenix," said Mario Paniagua, city budget and research director. "We have to look at every area."

Last year when the city was facing an even larger $245 million budget deficit, officials agreed to cut 50 percent of funding to ALEX - the Ahwatukee Explorer neighborhood bus service - resulting in shorter routes and fewer hours of service. Paniagua said eliminating the service is an option under consideration.

"It's a possibility that it could be reduced somewhat or cut altogether. It's a little too early to tell," he said.

The program started in 2001 as a free, demonstration project to show how public transit could be provided in hard-to-reach residential areas like Ahwatukee Foothills. Its budget had been cut by 25 percent in 2009. ALEX was lucky, however, since other neighborhood circulators elsewhere in the city were cut altogether.

Phoenix City Councilman Sal DiCiccio, whose district includes Ahwatukee Foothills, said ALEX is high on the list for potential cuts.

"It doesn't bring in any revenue," DiCiccio said.

Other previous budget balancing suggestions included reducing the number of programs and hours of operation at Pecos Park Community Center, although those ideas were not carried out. They could be on the table again this year, though, Paniagua said.

"It's still pretty early on in the process. We wanted to keep the City Council updated as early as possible," he said. "We are looking at the possibility to cuts to city services."

DiCiccio said those programs likely will be a topic of discussion.

"The city always threatens the public with that, particularly when they want a tax," he said. "They'll always talk about youth and seniors, and police and fire."

Paniagua said the main reasons for the shortfall involve an anticipated multi-million dollar reduction in income tax revenue shared with local governments by the state.

"There has been a significant drop there," he said.

The results of the 2010 Census, expected in March, also could mean less federal money for the city, which saw smaller population growth than other areas of the state, he said.

"Even though we've grown, we've lost our share of the relative population because other cities have grown faster," he said.

Other measures, such as new fees or fee hikes, and other cuts, are possible next fiscal year, as well, Paniagua said. Last year, those included cutting vacant city jobs, reducing employee compensation by 3.2 percent, and instituting a 2 percent food tax to help balance the budget.

Paniagua said there has been some slight improvement, with city revenue growing 1.9 percent compared with the same five-month period last year.

"It's a small uptick, which is way better than what we saw last year, which was significant declines," he said. "It's a bit of good news."

DiCiccio said he believes the budget gap can be closed by reducing employee costs and outsourcing some functions, like auto maintenance, to private companies.

"We need to find a better way of providing the same services," he said.

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