City programs, staff on chopping block - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Topstory

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City programs, staff on chopping block

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Posted: Friday, January 15, 2010 12:00 am

After cutting budgets for eight out of the last 10 years, the knives are coming out again in Phoenix.

The decline in city sales tax dollars and reduced state-shared revenues have created a $144 million gap in the Phoenix budget for the remainder of this year and next. This follows a year when the council sliced $156 million in spending.

For one Ahwatukee Foothills resident, the yearly cycle of cuts has got to stop.

“That’s not understandable or acceptable,” Greta Rogers told the council during Tuesday’s budget briefing.

She later said the city needs to call in an expert on financial planning to help break the yearly cycle of cuts that are eroding essential services.

On Feb. 2, a draft budget will be presented to the council that will include reduced services, the elimination of some services and layoffs.

And this time, unlike past budget cuts, no departments will be left unscathed. Public safety managers have been asked to prepare 15 percent budget reductions and all other departments are looking at 30 percent cuts.

“If public safety maintained its current funding and everything else went away … we would still not be able to have a balanced budget. It’s pretty dramatic,” Mayor Phil Gordon said Tuesday at a City Council briefing.

But Councilman Sal DiCiccio thinks that city payroll has ballooned out of control and could be the key to solving the Phoenix’s budget crisis.

He said the average cost for a city employee, including salary, insurance, taxes and everything else, is nearly $100,000 a year.

“The city of Phoenix is unstable; it cannot sustain the unit cost of an employee without going to the taxpayers or the private sector” for more money, he said.

A review of budget records show that between 2004 and 2008 the average salary and benefits for the then 4,966 civilians and sworn officers in the police department went from $78,501 to 89,485 a year, a 14 percent increase. During the same time, park department employment dropped, but the average cost went up by 30 percent, to $77,141 per employee.

The city is in the midst of renegotiating contracts with the different bargaining units that represent city workers for the coming year, so officials can’t comment on possible pay raises, or cuts, that may be in the works.

But DiCiccio isn’t covered by the same federal labor laws.

“It’s insane to increase salaries and cut fire and police,” DiCiccio said.

Instead, he thinks that pay raises should be put on hold, and all employees, including fire and police, should be asked to accept unpaid furloughs, similar to the private sector.

“They all have to chip in … everyone will be asked to do their fair share,” DiCiccio said.

Already more than half of the top managers have taken furlough days, and City Manager David Cavazos told the council that for the second year managers in the city won’t be getting pay raises.

But even if every executive manager in the city were eliminated, the savings would be less than $20 million.

One possible partial solution that has been floated is extending the current city sales tax to include food, which could cut the looming $144 million deficit by $50 million.

Several council members have said they are open to the idea of eliminating the current exemption for food from the city’s 2 percent sales tax, but DiCiccio said he opposes such a tax.

“I’ll tell you what the voters won’t accept – it’s a food tax. It’s the poor that pay it,” DiCiccio said.

With no magic solution, most council members agreed that the city must pull back and protect the essential services.

“Now is the time to separate luxury from necessity,” said Councilman Tom Simplot, who represents central Phoenix.

The question is what is an essential service.

Vice Mayor Michael Nowakowski, who represents southwest Phoenix, said that in his district, services including municipal swimming pools, community centers, libraries and the after-school program are all essential.

A series of public hearings will take place in Ahwatukee Foothills and around the city in the first two weeks of February, followed by a final review by the council. The budget changes could go into effect as early as March 1.

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