Money for poetry but not Phoenix police?

May 5, 2014
The Arizona Republic
Laurie Roberts

At the end of last week's marathon budget meeting in Phoenix – the proposed budget which calls for pay cuts for employees and tax increases for residents – there was a telling item on the agenda.

A request by city management to spend $10,285 to light up a piece of public art.

The city has a $38 million deficit yet the City Council was asked to spend $10,285 to illuminate the "7th Avenue Melrose Gateway Feature".

City Manager Ed Zuercher has proposed a 1.6 percent pay/benefits cut but he plans to spend nearly $6 million on lobbyists and public-information officers and millions more on travel and dues. I'm guessing the annual $20,000 to showcase poetry about the marvels of recycling is also buried in there somewhere.

The City Council this week will take a tentative vote on Zuercher's budget. What it should do is demand a do-over and start asking questions.

Like, how is it that Phoenix has more revenue coming in yet finds itself in such dire circumstances? And why is it that no other Valley city – other than Glendale with its legendary mismanagement – is facing these financial woes?

"There's a number of forces that when you add them all up, the revenue side starts to have an impact," Zuercher explained, in a meeting last week with The Republic. "But then we're also talking about what's going on with our pension costs and health-care costs, which are pretty substantial."

Councilman Sal DiCiccio says the city has long been mismanaged.

"We have a structural deficit in the city of Phoenix," he told me. "There's a reason why Phoenix and Glendale are the only two cities in Maricopa County that are facing this problem. We are at the second highest revenue we've ever had. Next year will be the highest and we're still projecting budget problems."

Zuercher has dropped his plan to close senior centers and swimming pools. Instead he's asking that employees suck up $16.5 million in cuts and citizens shell out $11 million more in fees and taxes. The rest would come from the usual budgetary hocus-pocus.

Naturally, employees are not thrilled, though they'll still get merit raises and "longevity" bonuses, as they have throughout the recession.

Three things seem clear:

1. The City Council isn't going to cut the pay of police officers -- not given the threats faced daily by a police force that is already 500 officers down. It's easy for Zuercher -- he of the 22 percent pay raise -- to talk about "shared sacrifice" but the employees earing bulletproof vests have already done their part on the sacrifice scale.

2. The city needs to tear apart this budget and decide what is a priority and what is not. What is essential and what is not.

It's as Councilman Jim Waring told me: "It's impossible to justify a tax increase or justify cutting police officer pay or to claim that there is a fiscal emergency when you're spending money on poems about recycling."

3. Given that No. 2 is not going to happen, I look for the City Council to forgo the idea of living within the city's means and instead ask residents this fall to reinstate the food tax.

And won't that be a fun sell?

Our revenue is increasing but alas, we're broke.

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