Phoenix City Council gets community feedback from trial budget

The Phoenix City Council will consider raising property tax rates for the first time in 20 years in order to repay debt and fund public services.

The council met recently to discuss a trial budget for 2016, brought forward by city manager, Ed Zuercher, which includes a proposal to raise the Phoenix property tax rate, something the city hasn’t done since 1995.

Despite inflation and property value fluctuations, the city of Phoenix has kept its property tax rate at $1.85. Because of this consistent rate, the Phoenix City Council has provided over $200 million in tax relief to Phoenix residents using money from the General Obligation Reserve Fund, according to Denise Olson, the chief financial officer for the City of Phoenix. However, according to Jeff Barton, the city’s budget and research director, that fund is draining quickly and additional resources must be used to fulfill the city’s debt services and community needs.

The trial budget includes five options to repay the city’s debt services while allocating general funds to departments like public safety, parks and recreation, and public libraries. The first option involves floating the combined property tax rate to $2.17, which will increase the residential property tax by $4.25 per month, per home. According to Barton, this option is a long-term, credit positive plan for the city, unlike other options that maintain the city’s original property tax rate but include unstable revenue sources which could potentially damage the city’s credit rating.

Barton stated that the city should make critical investments in public safety needs, including the city’s police and fire departments. General funds are mostly allocated to these departments, with over 43 percent going to the police department, and 24 percent to the fire department.

The trial budget suggests additional funding to these departments, including the allocation of over $2 million towards the supply of body cameras to local law enforcement officers. The budget aims to provide officers with over 2000 body cameras over the next two years, with additional funding needed to maintain and store the footage recorded on the devices.

The budget also calls for over $173,000 for police employee assistance and wellness, intending to create a police psychologist position to aid officers with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.

In addition, the city’s trial budget proposed restored funding for programs and services that had been reduced or eliminated because of prior fiscal budgets. Over $100,000 was suggested to increase electronic media in public libraries, and over $50,000 will be spent on arts grant programs.

Walt Gray told the council he is concerned about the idea of raising property taxes to support this funding, noting, “Little changes can be made and we could tweak everything to keep taxes as low as possible. We don’t need to restore all cuts made during the recession, we all took a hit,” he said.

Barton and Zuercher noted the trial budget’s early stages and encouraged questions and comments from the Phoenix public.

“The trial budget and the city budget almost always end up different and those differences come from the community feedback,” Barton said.

Richard Wright told the council he supports the potential tax increase, but is wary of the details mentioned in the budget options.

“Nobody wants to pay taxes, but in Phoenix we pay less taxes than most places,” Wright said. “Let’s recognize that to do all the things we want to do with the police, streets, and activities, we will have to go with option number one and raise the tax rate.”

The Phoenix City Council said they encourage members of the public to attend the 15 total hearings regarding the trial budget that will be held between March 28 and April 19.

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