[btn]By Teri Carmicelli[/btn]
The city of Phoenix is once again facing a budget shortfall, though not as steep as the record $270 million deficit it struggled with in 2010. However, for many residents it has been a case of déjà vu as the preliminary city budget for 2014-15 proposes closing the $37.7 million deficit gap through deep cuts to some vital city programs, including senior and community centers, as well as the elimination of civilian positions in the police and fire departments.

Currently the city is proposing closing three of its 15 seniors centers—though which centers, the city has not yet said—as well as all 13 full-service community centers, and seven year-round neighborhood recreation centers. In addition, programming at the remaining senior centers will be reduced by 50 percent.

Also eliminated would be supervised activities at the Rose Mofford and Encanto Sports Complexes, which cuts about six employee positions.

Public safety and criminal justice/courts make up 70 percent of the general fund operating costs, however, city officials assert that there will be no reductions in sworn police and fire positions. Where those departments are being hit include the elimination of 23 civilian positions throughout the police department.

The proposed budget also not only eliminates funding for the final phase of the Central Booking Unit plan, but closes that unit altogether, which eliminates the 15 civilian jobs at the facility.

The fire department would have to cut 26 civilian positions, including three in the Crisis Intervention Program, which would result in the department no longer providing support and grief counseling to victims of tragic fire and medical events. Also eliminated would be 19 civilian jobs in the Fire Prevention Section, which in part would eliminate the department’s Pool Safety Program.

Also on the chopping block are staff positions and funding for the city’s Graffiti Busters program, resulting in a 14-percent reduction in graffiti removal or over 10,000 fewer sites cleaned each year citywide.
Library hours and services will remain unchanged due to certain requirements in the city’s charter.

The city hosted a series of public meetings last month where residents could express their concerns as well as their suggestions. Perhaps the biggest surprise has been support for increasing revenue through new taxes or service fees, although many who spoke did not want to see a return of the half of the food tax that was eliminated in January, primarily since the food tax more greatly impacts the most struggling members of the community, such as seniors and the working poor.

Rather, suggestions included a 1 percent “dining” tax on all food and beverages purchased at restaurants and bars, as well as a small bump to the city’s existing retail sales tax. Many residents who spoke at the public hearings said they’d be willing to pay a little bit more if it meant saving vital community programs that serve the city’s most vulnerable populations, including seniors, children and the homeless.

There also were suggestions of finding more public/private partnerships and other sponsorships to help keep programs and centers up and running. For example, Grand Canyon University recently announced a $125,000 donation to the city of Phoenix to specifically fund the Pool Safety Program as well as graffiti-abatement efforts in the “canyon corridor,” bordered by I-17, 35th Avenue, Indian School Road and Missouri Avenue.

When the North Mountain Visitor Center was closed due to budget shortfalls, four nonprofit agencies stepped up and offered to operate the center together, which they have continued to do successfully, seven days a week, since January 2011.

On May 6, the City Council will receive a revised, balanced budget proposal from City Manager Ed Zuercher that reflects priorities communicated by residents during the hearings, with council action scheduled to take place on May 20. Residents who were unable to attend any of the public hearings are invited to send their comments and suggestions to budget.research@phoenix.gov or call 602-262-4800.


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