Piggy bank with gold coins

The Phoenix City Manager was scheduled to present a proposed budget to City Council yesterday, May 4, with a dramatically different message from the one he presented at this time last year.

City Manager Ed Zuercher noted that the $1.5 billion proposed General Fund budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 “represents a remarkable turnaround from the budget of 2020-21 when we instituted hiring freezes to prevent COVID-related deficits.”

This time the city is looking at a $154.8 million surplus that it will use to pay negotiated salary increases totaling $118.3 million and create 318 positions for “programs and services in several important categories.” 

The surplus results from $98 million in one-time funds – mostly federal pandemic relief money – and $56.8 million in increased revenue that partly reflects higher real estate tax yields from the dramatic increases in home values over the past fiscal year.

 The combined real estate tax rate of $2.13 for the coming year will drop by a penny. While the primary rate of $1.31 remains unchanged, the secondary rate will drop from 82 cents to 81 cents.

The budget also lists several new expenditures that administration officials said resulted from ideas offered during 14 community town halls on the budget.

That new spending – at a cost of $4.3 million – includes three new parks in southwest Phoenix Highline Canal maintenance, more staff for the Pueblo Grande Museum, resources to promote AIDS awareness and prevention, a “city navigator” for veterans’ services, additional funding for the city’s Adaptive Reuse Program, more maintenance staff for city cemeteries, and additional Water Department for conservation-related activities.

It also would cover “targeted economic development opportunities for the west region of the city, expand the successful College Depot Program for our younger residents, increase funding for the Arts and Historic Preservation, provide for adequate floodplain management, add funding for landscape management due to recently completed capital projects and address the need for more resources due to growth and demand for city amenities and services.”

Is Ahwatukee getting anything specific beyond normal city services? The city manager’s 73-page budget overview lists nothing specific.

Of the remaining $32.5 million in surplus money, $20.5 million will be spent on “public safety reform and responsiveness” that includes creation of 226.9 positions.

“Primary in this category is additional resources for a bold investment of $15 million towards expanding an existing civilian-only program for responding to mental and behavioral health calls for service,” the city manager’s budget report states.

The city is adding more crisis-response and behavioral health units. They would answer more calls that normally would be handled by police officers but that don’t necessarily require the intervention of someone armed with a gun.

“Community members, first responders and mental health professionals have all identified the need for enhanced mental health and crisis response support in Phoenix,” Zuercher’s report noted.

The city Community Assistance Program that would run those crisis teams was created in 1995 but “has been under-resourced and unable to meet community demands,” he noted.

But that enhanced program won’t even be fully operational for 18 months to two years.

During that time, Zuercher’s report stated, “the city plans to seek input from the community and mental and behavioral health stakeholders to ensure the program meets the needs of all. Staff also plans to engage independent experts to conduct thorough process mapping, best practices identification, community engagement, performance measures.”

Part of the public safety funding also includes $3.7 million to add 75 civilian Police Department positions. Of that total new personnel count, 15 positions would be devoted to quicker turnaround time on public records requests, 34 staffers would “ensure data reporting compliance with the National Incident-Based Reporting System; and 33 would be assigned to Central Booking for jobs like fingerprinting and initial data input.

There also is $500,000 set aside for a “thorough evaluation of practices and policies” in the Phoenix Police Department.

Other surplus-fueled spending includes these new initiatives:

    Administrative accountability. Costing $3.1 million and requiring 27 new positions across a variety of city departments, this initiative aims to provide “timely, effective and high-quality service delivery in areas concerning city elections, public records requests, contract management, information technology, human resources, legal services, fiscal support, and to increase funding for maintenance of the city’s aging fleet of vehicles.

A third of that total funding will be spent on “managed services to sustain technology infrastructure and remediate vulnerabilities to protect city systems and applications from ever evolving security threats.”

The initiative also includes creation of an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion with two positions to “ensure the city is both a place to work and live which promotes equitable and respectful treatment of all people.”

“COVID relief and resiliency.” City staff proposes spending $2.6 million to create seven positions to “ensure the city not only continues to responsibly navigate the pandemic, but also to provide these service enhancements and information technology benefits going forward.”

The largest expenditure in this category would be $1.7 million for an additional three employees and contract services “to support the technology deployed due to the pandemic for teleworking, new WiFilocations and video conferencing.”

Also included under this spending category is enhanced digital security for the new PHX 311 system, three positions to man the appointment counter at City Hall and money for emergency food assistance and the city’s 2025 Food Action Plan.

Climate change heat readiness. At a cost of $2.8 largely for 14 new positions, here’s how city administration explains this initiative:

“The growing hazard of urban heat to the public, particularly vulnerable populations such as the homeless, require a forward-thinking approach to provide for a sustainable environment for city residents. 

“Proposed additions in this category include establishing a new Office of Heat Response and Mitigation, provide additional resources and staff to achieve the goals of the 2010 Tree and Shade Master Plan, increase staff for the Energy System Inspection Program in the Fire Department and add funding for conducting greenhouse gas emissions inventories and to assist with implementing the city’s newly created Climate Action Plan.”

Affordable housing and homelessness.  

This initiative, at a cost of $2.8 million, would be used mainly to increase and improve affordable housing units for homeless people. 

It also will be sued to clean up areas of downtown and Sunnyslope, which Zuercher’s report said has seen an increase in homeless people during the pandemic.

The report also summarizes the demands made by citizens during the 14 public hearings, which were held virtually.

The numbers indicated not many people participated in those sessions.

For example, in looking at what citizens opposed in the trial budget circulated a couple months ago, by far the biggest response involved 199 people who opposed police funding and money for addiction treatment programs in the city’s western half. 

After that, 23 people opposed the whole budget. The rest of opponents numbered fewer than 4 on any one measure. They were opposed to funding increases for specific city departments.

When it came to public requests for additional funding and new programs, the biggest response – with 170 people weighing in – came in favor of the civilian behavioral health response teams that the city is adding. 

The next largest contingents involved 76 people who wanted more action on heat readiness and conservation; 36 who wanted more affordable housing programs and rental assistance; and 35 each for arts and culture increases and expanded public transit services. 

"This feedback was taken into consideration," Zuercher's report said, noting the additional spending he included.

City Council will have a tentative budget adoption vote June 2 with final adoption of the spending plan two weeks after that.

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