After a heated debate, the Tucson City Council voted 4-2 to include a 55-cent-an-hour raise for all 4,918 employees in the next budget, effective no later than Jan. 1, 2014.
The council has a number of other issues to figure out during its ongoing budget deliberations. The amount of money left once those issues are resolved will determine exactly when the raises will kick in, but the council said it will be Jan. 1 at the latest. The council will vote on a final budget in June.
The cost for this year will come from an extra $4.8 million the city uncovered while looking for ways to close a $15 million deficit.
The raise follows a 1 percent across-the-board increase for all employees this fiscal year.
Council members who opposed the measure said while it's important to put more money in struggling city employees' pockets, it shouldn't be at the expense of future fiscal stability.
"I don't want to write a check we can't cash later," Paul Cunningham said. "This could come back to haunt us. Money doesn't grow on trees."
Steve Kozachik said the city already doesn't have money to address growing pensions costs, streetcar costs and numerous other funding problems coming in the next few years.
With $30 million deficits or more in the foreseeable future, Kozachik warned that higher salaries only increase the chances the city will have to furlough or lay off employees in the future.
"What good is a raise if you'll lose your job because of it?" Kozachik said.
Councilwoman Karin Uhlich chided Kozachik for being overly cynical about the budget by only highlighting the city's "budget weaknesses."
Uhlich said Kozachik's insinuation that the staff is leading the city off a fiscal cliff was "ridiculous."
City finances are not as bad as people think, she asserted.
Higher-than-expected revenue projections coupled with common-sense changes such as limiting new capital improvements will allow the city to balance its books well into the future, just like it has in the past, Uhlich said.
The budget can be called a lot of things, Kozachik said, but "balanced" isn't one of them.
"We aren't balancing our budget," he said. "We're just kicking the can down the road."
While the raises were recommended by human resources' Lani Simmons, City Finance Director Kelly Gottschalk said she couldn't support the raises because they leave too many holes to fill in future budgets.
Gottschalk cautioned that this would add to the city's tenuous financial situation, especially if the city fixes its current salary inequities now as well.
"I am concerned about if we vote to implement the (human resources) director's recommendation, my sense is there will not be any money left," Gottschalk said.
But Uhlich said the city staff is always squeamish around budget time.
"The management always pushes back and urges us to be hyperconservative," she said, resulting in a tepid council fearful of making the necessary moves around budget time.
"The problem is mayor and council then isn't as active as setting the priorities for those resources," she said. "And in this instance, we said this is absolutely a priority and it needs to happen."
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"I don't want to write a check we can't cash later. This could come back to haunt us. Money doesn't grow on trees."
Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or firstname.lastname@example.org