Two months before a vote to raise the city sales tax, the Tucson City Council agreed unanimously Wednesday to immediately authorize $2.9 million in additional cuts and steps to collect more in existing taxes.
The council took no action on a proposal to preauthorize drastic cuts in police officers and firefighters if voters reject the half-cent tax hike.
That doesn't mean the threat to public safety services has been eliminated. Instead, the council, following the lead of City Manager Mike Letcher, is opting not to talk about it for now. Letcher said in an interview during a break in the meeting that a council vote to accept a committee report recommending the public safety cuts if the tax fails amounts to de facto approval of the recommendations, so no further council action is necessary.
Most of the $2.9 million for budget stabilization would come from a newly created team to monitor and collect sales taxes, which could bring in $1 million to $1.5 million extra.
Cuts to overtime pay, attrition and administration cuts would cut about $1.3 million from the budget.
Although the council voted to cut overtime and administration, it rejected a policy change to require city workers to actually work more than 40 hours a week before receiving overtime pay. Currently, city workers can use their vacation and sick time toward a 40-hour work week before they're eligible for overtime, meaning they could collect overtime pay despite only working one or two days in a week.
Letcher opposed the change in the overtime policy, saying the city has done well to limit overtime costs, and "instead of reducing benefits, we'll just reduce our costs." Overtime rules could still be changed if the budget situation gets worse, he said.
A November ballot proposition asks voters to raise the city sales tax from 2 percent to 2.5 percent. Without the tax hike, the city faces a $51 million deficit next year.
The council appointed a committee to recommend what should be done should the tax fail. The council voted unanimously Wednesday to accept receipt of the committee's report, but it didn't take action on any of the recommendations should the sales tax fail.
Although Letcher had previously urged the council to formally adopt the recommendations, on Wednesday he said it isn't really necessary. In as much as the council had already voted to accept the report, he will prepare a budget following the committee's advice to cut police and fire by 10 percent each, cut Sun Tran by more than 15 percent, and cut most other city department budgets by 15 percent if the sales tax fails.
The council also voted to look at implementing an additional $10 million in cuts for next fiscal year - fiscal 2012 - that begins July 1. The council asked Letcher to implement as many of those $10 million in cuts as possible this year as well.
Some of the cuts the council endorsed, however, were confusing. The council voted to cut Tucson 12.tv's funding completely to save $900,000 after earlier in the day voting to consider an agreement to merge the city cable channel with Arizona Public Media.
Other cuts included in the $10 million:
• 15 percent cuts to all departments except for police, fire, parks and transportation to save $7 million.
• Cutting Access Tucson's budget to zero to save $300,000.
• Selling the Access Tucson building for $1.2 million.
• Cutting outside agency budgets to save $700,000.
All the council members said the city needs to make cuts as soon as possible. Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said delays would simply put off pain now that would be much worse later.
Councilman Steve Kozachik passed out a plan at the table for his "Plan D" - he already proposed a Plan C last week - calling for a laundry list of cuts to save $30 million as well as a commitment to keep the sales tax increase to only a quarter rather than a half percent.
Although the city can't change the November ballot measure at this time, the City Council could choose to hike the sales tax less than the half percent if it passes.
Letcher agreed to come back in October with cuts that can be made immediately, before the sales tax goes to voters.
Contact reporter Rob O'Dell at 573-4346 or email@example.com