This week, the City Council approved a tentative budget with requested changes. Far from boring, a city budget spells out its priorities in black and white.
Budget priorities always matter but in this downturn, priorities carry greater consequences. Like triage in an emergency room, crisis budgets must prioritize the most vulnerable in order to save the lives. More often than not, these priorities also make good financial sense.
Scottsdale is a tourism town, so it’s no surprise the city’s revenue took a big hit due to COVID-19. The sky is not falling though. The city is financially strong and moved quickly to pivot budget priorities, innovate, bring work in-house, and can emerge from the crisis with stronger community bonds and a leaner, greener economy.
Below are some steps we can take to get from here to there.
Pay increases on hold, saving $9 million
From city police officers to parks maintenance staff and social workers, staff has put our safety ahead of their own. In this budget, staff again put us first.
Despite commitments for pay increases, staff will receive none. In the final budget, I hope to have flexibility to re-instate raises if the economy significantly improves.
I will also be asking City Council to postpone council and mayor pay increases until staff raises are restored.
Staff saving tax dollars
In one week’s time, Scottsdale’s best economy in history came to a screeching halt. Despite a dramatic loss in revenues, staff have worked longer hours, reduced service fees for residents, and found innovative ways to save tax money.
In the past few months, public works brought two projects in-house reducing costs by $800,000, a grant is paying for two EV charging stations, and a horse manure expense has been converted into a cost saving resource at WestWorld.
There are many more tax dollar saving projects in the works. When pay increases aren’t an option, we can all do our part to show appreciation.
Temporary arts funding reductions
With museums closed and shows canceled, Scottsdale’s art’s partners will need to reduce costs in the upcoming year. The $7 million in annual funding is significant today and it is unjust to fund closed facilities thereby placing the full financial burden of this downturn on staff and residents.
7-0 vote to prevent homelessness and protect programming for disabled residents
The tentative budget did not fully protect two vulnerable populations and City Council (7-0) fixed both. Rental assistance is crucial in the fight to prevent homelessness.
Grants from neighboring Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community (SRPMIC) fund the city’s rental assistance program and other programs. With casinos closed, this future funding is uncertain.
Rental assistance needs doubled in April while funding is dwindling. Council approved contingency funds to ensure funding for this and other lifesaving programs. The goal is to reimburse tax dollars spent with anticipated federal relief dollars.
In addition, council voted to restore full funding for important resident programming including two programs near and dear to my heart: summer camp for middle school and high school age children with disabilities and social programming for adults with disabilities.
Tax cuts for apartment owners vs. senior programming
Mayor Lane’s proposed symbolic property tax cut does not have my support for two reasons. The tax cut benefits owners of apartment complexes and corporate property owners like Nationwide Insurance far more than regular people.
Someone who owns a $500,000 home will see only an extra $15 --- for the whole year. I’d rather see cuts that benefit residents over corporations.
Second, the tax cut eliminates $600,000 of revenue or roughly the annual cost of the city’s senior food program. With funding for these food programs in question, I think most residents would prefer to protect seniors during this crisis than pocket $15.
Cancel Canal Convergence, save $550,000
Tourists are gone and those slowly returning will likely avoid large gatherings. The proposed four-day Canal Convergence will set the city’s tourism budget back by $550,000.
If COVID numbers spike, as happened this week, the event will be canceled and money lost. This beloved event should be postponed and funding saved for a happier and safer time.
Better contracts and fewer staff
The city continues to renegotiate contracts increasing revenue and flexibility, pilot programs to reduce waste and costs, and scale back and postpone CIP projects. All open staff positions will be unfilled and the city has reduced the already lean staffing levels.
Collectively, these measures have shaved tens of millions of dollars off the budget.
Editor’s Note: Solange Whitehead is an elected member of Scottsdale City Council.