Ariz. city considers laying off all firefighters

Officials said they would look to contract with another agency to handle emergency services in the one-square-mile city

By Joe Ferguson
The Arizona Daily Star

SOUTH TUCSON, Ariz. — A projected $624,000 budget deficit has the South Tucson City Council considering the possibility of having to lay off all of its firefighters or its police officers.

Officials said they would look to contract with another agency or agencies to handle court services, patrol city streets and handle other emergency services in the one-square-mile city.

Hopefully at a cheaper cost than what the city is spending now.

City Manager Sixto Molina said the city is refusing to throw up the white flag as it struggles to continue to offer services as revenue, specifically sales taxes, continues to dwindle. The city has failed to meet projected sales tax revenues in nine out of the last 10 years.

Options such as cutting city employees’ pay and requiring job furloughs would not be enough to offset the budget deficit, Molina said.

Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry said he would be open to exploring a new agreement with South Tucson to take over court services, but ruled out the possibility of Pima County sheriff’s deputies patrolling the city.

Huckelberry said he is trying to reduce costs at the sheriff’s department, which has a history of being over budget.

South Tucson already contracts with the county for animal control services as well as the housing of inmates in the county jail.

Tucson City Manager Mike Ortega said he hasn’t discussed the possibility of contracting with South Tucson to provide services, but said any formal proposal would be decided by the Tucson City Council.

The city of Tucson now provides residential trash services to South Tucson and bills customers directly.

Less than two years ago, Waste Management severed ties with South Tucson in a dispute over $300,000 in unpaid debts for garbage collection. South Tucson was able to avoid a costly legal fight but agreed to a $140,000 settlement paid over several years.

South Tucson has not reached out to other agencies or privately-run companies like Rural/Metro about an agreement for fire and ambulance service.

However, South Tucson officials said Monday that forming a fire district would likely be cost-prohibitive for the city. An estimate suggested the cost to an average homeowner would be $3,451 a year just to operate a fire district in the small city.

Molina discussed various options with the South Tucson City Council on Monday night, outlining why furloughing employees, cutting salaries and eliminating holiday pay cannot make up for the expected budget shortfall.

The council also briefly discussed various tax hikes, but staff acknowledged that there are caps on how much the city can increase property taxes. The proposal was quickly dismissed as insufficient to answer the city’s budget crisis.

The issue is expected to be revisited at the next council meeting in a few weeks.

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