Tucson drops plan to raise bus fares

2014-04-21T00:00:00Z 2014-04-21T11:23:26Z Tucson drops plan to raise bus faresBy Darren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Bus riders can rest easy now — city officials have scrapped the idea of raising fares this year.

A 25-cent fare increase won’t be included Wednesday when Tucson City Manager Richard Miranda presents his recommended budget to the mayor and council.

The manager’s office dropped the fare hike and made other adjustments based on feedback from the mayor and councilmembers over the past few weeks, wrote Chief Financial Officer Kelly Gottschalk in a memo released over the weekend.

The other changes include cutting less than previously proposed from the city’s spending on outside arts, public-access television and human services groups.

The council approved the tentative bus-fare increase in February and would have raised bus fares across the board, including the low-income fare.

The move would have generated an extra $2.4 million a year for the city.

But bus-rider advocates characterized it as balancing the budget on the backs of the poor.

The council also approved an additional $2.4 million in savings by readjusting bus routes. Those changes remain in the recommended budget.

Activist Brian Flagg, with the Tucson Bus Riders’ Union, cheered the move, saying it shows the city has compassion for the poor. He said the struggle now is to ensure routes and services aren’t slashed.

Miranda’s recommended budget partially restores cuts to various outside agencies as well.

The Tucson Pima Arts Council will have $250,000 of its $303,000 cut restored.

Access Tucson, scheduled to receive nearly zero funding next year, will get a one-time, $150,000 payment to allow it time to assess its future.

Human service agencies will receive an extra $400,000 than the previous recommendation, and workforce development gets $500,000.

To cover the changes, the city will borrow to pay for election equipment, drop plans for a natural-gas renovation project, and use $3.1 million of its rainy-day fund to cover the rest.

Although the city will dip into its reserve fund, it plans on sweeping the amount it will use to cover the deficit from various city departments, so the fund won’t fall below fiscal year 2013 levels.

The city’s reserve fund is a key measure bond rating agencies look at when determining a city’s creditworthiness.

Other ways the city intends to fill its coffers this year include raising the business license fee from $45 to $60 and continuing to charge Tucson Water customers $1.6 million through a tax that was intended to sunset in 2011.

The city faced a $27 million budget shortfall.

Miranda closed the majority of the gap by eliminating 92 positions and reshuffling nearly every department.

MIXED RESPONSE

Councilwoman Regina Romero applauded Miranda’s responsive approach to this year’s budget.

“I think he was reading the tea leaves, and looking at what we were uncomfortable with and making the changes accordingly,” she said. “That’s what a budget discussion should be about.”

Romero said budgets are moral documents and reflect the conscience of a community.

“I did not feel comfortable raising fares on the most vulnerable,” she said.

In addition, she said social services, such as workforce development, save money by teaching people skills to obtain jobs and allow them to stop using food stamps and other forms of public assistance.

Others criticized Miranda’s suggestions.

“This is an irresponsible budget,” Councilman Steve Kozachik said.

Instead of raising fees on businesses and dipping into the city’s reserve fund, Kozachik believes the council should tackle some of its employee compensation issues, specifically rescinding last year’s pay raise and the sick-leave sell-back program for public safety employees.

“Between the pay increases and sick-leave sell-back, we’re staring at $10 million we put on the table and dug ourselves a hole that much deeper,” Kozachik said. “Instead of dealing with either of those, we’re refusing to raise bus fares by even a penny, increasing fees to businesses by 33 percent, and dipping into our reserves by $3 million.

“I hope the rating agencies aren’t paying attention, because we’re checking all the wrong boxes.”

The council must approve a final budget by the end of June.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at ddaronco@azstarnet.com or 573-4243. Follow on Twitter @DarrenDaRonco

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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