[Source: Scott Wong, Arizona Republic] — Despite opposition from two members, the Phoenix City Council on Tuesday approved a budget plan that eliminates 520 jobs and requires $64 million in cuts to parks, public transit, after-school programs, and the arts. But it contains none of the severe cuts to public safety, senior centers, and libraries that were proposed in late January. Under the spending plan, no sworn police officers or firefighters will be laid off, and no senior centers, libraries, large community centers, or softball fields will be closed. City officials clarified that fewer than 50 full-time employees would actually be laid off, due to vacancies, retirements, and efforts to transfer police officers and other workers into other departments.
The general-fund budget adopted Tuesday was drastically different from the initial proposal that called for cutting $140 million in services and axing 1,300 jobs, including pink slips for hundreds of police officers and firefighters. City leaders managed to save city jobs and services primarily by imposing a sales tax on groceries, using unspent money in a public-safety fund, and getting labor unions to agree to a 3.2 percent concession in wages and benefits. “Hundreds of people’s jobs will be saved because of the measures we have taken here,” City Manager David Cavazos said.
Annual budgets in Phoenix typically are approved on a unanimous vote, but Council members Peggy Neely and Sal DiCiccio voted against the budget and said this plan contained elements that lacked transparency and were impossible to support. They pointed to Mayor Phil Gordon’s move last month to push through a 2 percent food tax without adequate public input. And they blasted a plan by budget officials to shift more than 20 police officers into the Water, Aviation, and Transit departments to save their jobs, a move that law enforcement and management argued would boost security at water plants, the airport, and on light rail. “I’m very concerned with how we built this,” Neely said during a seven-hour meeting at the Orpheum Theatre.
Gordon and six other council members supported the budget, which runs through June 2011. The cuts take effect April 5. They come just a year after the council slashed a record $156 million from the roughly $1 billion general-fund budget. Among the most severe reductions this time:
- The city’s after-school program will close at 25 of 55 sites during the school year and the summer program will shut down completely.
- The city also will stop funding the Shemer Art Center and Museum and Arizona Horse Lovers Park, which could be operated by private groups.
- Visitor centers at North Mountain, South Mountain, and Rio Salado parks will be shuttered.
- Bus service along several routes will be reduced by 15 percent and the DASH Downtown Loop bus will be eliminated.
- Riders also will have to wait longer for light rail during peak hours, though late-night weekend service will be preserved.
- Some departments will be consolidated, including the City Clerk’s Office and Information Technology.
- And cuts will claim two top officials in the City Manager’s Office, as well as positions in the mayor and council offices.
In recent weeks, 4,500 residents attended 15 public hearings on the budget. About 500 sent e-mails or made phone calls to the city. Many said that without preserving the arts, culture and recreation in the city, Phoenix would fall into urban decay. “What I heard is that we are a city that is more than just a police force. I also heard that we simply cannot be a city-police state,” said Councilman Tom Simplot, who attended a handful of the hearings. “This budget reflects that to be the best we can, we need our youth centers, our libraries, our art centers.”
Added library advocate Dan Cook: “I am a retired senior citizen and my wife and I live on a fixed income, but I am willing to pay that tax to keep our city vital and alive.” A handful of African-American community leaders made one final plea to restore year-round funding for the decades-old South Phoenix Youth Center. Food-tax revenue will keep it open only during summers. “You’re closing the community out by closing these centers,” said longtime Valley broadcaster Art Mobley.