Tucson shortfall leaves lots of questions, few answers

Residents in Ward 6 get a chance to review budget; forecast is grim
2013-05-14T00:00:00Z 2013-05-14T07:27:16Z Tucson shortfall leaves lots of questions, few answersDarren DaRonco Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 14, 2013 12:00 am  • 

About three dozen residents packed into the Ward 6 conference room Monday evening to air their frustrations about city government and raise questions about the proposed budget.

After a brief primer on budget basics and how the city closed next fiscal year's $15 million budget deficit, residents got a look at an anticipated future burdened by years of unresolved budget threats.

Among the highlights - largely unfunded - discussed, with no real answers provided, were:

• A $39 million deficit in fiscal year 2015, getting progressively worse in future years.

• An aging infrastructure and vehicles that need repair and replacing.

• An expiring federal grant that funds 75 police officers the city will soon have to pay for.

• Ballooning public safety pension costs. Police and fire retirement alone rose more than 20 percent to $42 million last year. A decade ago, the city paid $5 million a year for police and fire pensions. The city now has about $540 million in unfunded pension liabilities for police and fire employees and pays one of the highest rates in the state, 44 cents for every dollar of those employees' wages.

• Streetcar Operations and Maintenance when the Tucson line is up and running.

• The city share of Pima County Wireless Integrated Network, which is $2 million.

• Transit savings that could come from a recent council vote to ask Sun Tran management to trim $2 million from its administrative budget, and a comprehensive transit review to see how much adjusting route times, eliminating redundant routes, etc. can cut costs.

• Potential loss of about $5 million in revenue because of two recent bills in the state Legislature.

Very little was offered residents in terms of how the city will find the money to cover these mounting expenses.

The city doesn't have any clear answers, Councilman Steve Kozachik said.

"The fact we didn't offer anybody a magic bullet was because we don't know what's coming. We don't know streetcar costs. We don't know pension costs. We don't know the extent of cuts from the Legislature," Kozachik said. "And that's exactly the point why we shouldn't increase salaries and pension obligations."

Finance Director Kelly Gottschalk was asked why some council members accused staffers of deceiving them over the total costs of a 55-cent-an-hour pay raise. Last week, a handful of council members, including Kozachik, said the city staff hadn't mentioned the $7.8 million total cost until after the council had voted on it.

Gottschalk said the staff had given the total on a slide during a March 27 PowerPoint presentation. But that was one slide in more than two dozen budget study session discussions, which Gottschalk acknowledged. "We could have stressed it more, but the mayor and council wanted to close the general fund balance," so the focus was on the $5.3 million in general fund costs, to the exclusion of departments that are funded through their own fees.

Lois Pawlak, president of the Garden District Neighborhood, wanted to know how former streets employees could steal from the city for years without anyone at the top knowing about it.

City Manager Richard Miranda said the wrong type of culture festered in the city for too long. When he took over, he made it a priority to weed it out. But it takes time, he said.

"My direction was let's be aggressive about it and start investigating these rumors," Miranda said.

Part of the problem was the city never had a system for handling complaints of malfeasance.

"We didn't have a reporting process before. So we had to create a process for employees to turn to," Miranda said.

He said what the city has found is that while there have been some bad apples the city needs to throw out from time to time, most of the complaints turn out to be baseless.

On StarNet: Go to azstarnet.com/politics to read more about local government.

Contact reporter Darren DaRonco at 573-4243 or ddaronco@azstarnet.com.

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

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