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Friday, Jan. 26, 2007 | Mayor Jerry Sanders and City Council members sharpened their language Thursday about the upcoming budget season, with the mayor’s plans to make severe cuts to the city government meeting a chilly reception months before he unveils his actual financial plan.

With the mayor saying he expects to layoff employees and cut services in order to scrounge the funds needed to plug several major funding gaps, council members are questioning not only his authority to do so, but also his rationale.

“There are certain expectations that are called for in the City Charter, and if they’re not going to provide those service levels than the mayor needs to let the public know,” Councilwoman Donna Frye said. She continued, “The strong-mayor form of government doesn’t say that the public should be shut out of the process.”

The comments made by both sides serve as an early signal that Sanders and the City Council are headed for a showdown over the city’s funding priorities for the 2008 fiscal year, as well as each branch’s authority over managing and monitoring the city’s spending.

When tensions arose between Sanders and the City Council at budget hearings during the debut of the strong-mayor form of government in 2006, officials were willing to chalk up the riffs to their inexperience with the new power dynamic. Last year provided a learning experience about the system, they said.

Now, in the strong-mayor system’s sophomore year, a more seasoned mayor and council are showing signs that they’ll be outspoken about their roles when it comes to guiding the city’s finances for the coming year.

“What the City Council would like to do is impose its dysfunctional management practices on the Mayor as if I were their hand-picked bureaucrat,” Sanders said in a statement Thursday. “This is the same City Council that has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to control spending or stand up to special interests.”

As Sanders makes plans to roll out a budget in April that he says will begin plugging the city’s long-term financial deficiencies at the expense of day-to-day services, City Council members are trying to hold steady the services the city provides.

Budget Crunch

Council members have begun expressing deep concerns about Mayor Jerry Sanders’ plans, and authority, to cut city services.


Scott
Peters

“[Sanders] can continue to beat up on people, continue to blame the work force and thank them in the same memo … but I suspect people want people to work together to solve problems.”


Ben
Hueso

“[Sanders] has expressed a willingness to work with us. We’ll see how much willingness there is. I’m personally not taking anything for granted.”


Toni
Atkins

“I think the mayor is going to point out what he believes to be the core services. We haven’t necessarily agreed what those core services are.”


Donna
Frye

“There are certain expectations that are called for in the City Charter, and if they’re not going to provide those service levels than the mayor needs to let the public know.”


Brian
Maienschein

“You can only spend what you have, and when you run any big city, there are going to be choices that need to be made.”


Jerry
Sanders

“The Council has apparently forgotten that voters approved empowering a strong mayor with the power to manage the city budget. What the City Council would like to do is impose its dysfunctional management practices on the Mayor as if I were their hand-picked bureaucrat.”


Scott
Peters

“[Sanders] can continue to beat up on people, continue to blame the work force and thank them in the same memo … but I suspect people want people to work together to solve problems.”


Ben
Hueso

“[Sanders] has expressed a willingness to work with us. We’ll see how much willingness there is. I’m personally not taking anything for granted.”


Toni
Atkins

“I think the mayor is going to point out what he believes to be the core services. We haven’t necessarily agreed what those core services are.”


Donna
Frye

“There are certain expectations that are called for in the City Charter, and if they’re not going to provide those service levels than the mayor needs to let the public know.”


Brian
Maienschein

“You can only spend what you have, and when you run any big city, there are going to be choices that need to be made.”


Jerry
Sanders

“The Council has apparently forgotten that voters approved empowering a strong mayor with the power to manage the city budget. What the City Council would like to do is impose its dysfunctional management practices on the Mayor as if I were their hand-picked bureaucrat.”


Scott
Peters

“[Sanders] can continue to beat up on people, continue to blame the work force and thank them in the same memo … but I suspect people want people to work together to solve problems.”


Ben
Hueso

“[Sanders] has expressed a willingness to work with us. We’ll see how much willingness there is. I’m personally not taking anything for granted.”


Toni
Atkins

“I think the mayor is going to point out what he believes to be the core services. We haven’t necessarily agreed what those core services are.”


Donna
Frye

“There are certain expectations that are called for in the City Charter, and if they’re not going to provide those service levels than the mayor needs to let the public know.”


Brian
Maienschein

“You can only spend what you have, and when you run any big city, there are going to be choices that need to be made.”


Jerry
Sanders

“The Council has apparently forgotten that voters approved empowering a strong mayor with the power to manage the city budget. What the City Council would like to do is impose its dysfunctional management practices on the Mayor as if I were their hand-picked bureaucrat.”

“I think past cuts are something people are starting to feel, specifically with respect to ongoing maintenance and park services,” said Councilwoman Toni Atkins, who chairs the council’s budget committee. She added, “It is going to get contentious when people’s priorities and the cuts in services are … made known.”

Council members are keeping a protective eye on city programs, such as police protection, libraries and parks, which could be on the chopping block this spring. Sanders forecasted that an $87 million gap in the general fund budget would exist before the layoffs he expects are made and without an increase to police officer pay, which he said he is considering. He has said cuts to basic city operations are more than likely, if not a foregone conclusion.

“It would be delusional to believe the city is going to be able to maintain same service levels that it had this year,” Sanders spokesman Fred Sainz said Thursday. “It’s simply not realistic to keep the same business-as-usual approach and be everything to all people.”

The debate over service levels is central to the clash that is anticipated this budget season between the mayor and council, two sides that vied several times last year over their respective powers to shape the city’s finances and spending priorities. And weeks before the council ponders specifying its authority over money transfers within city departments at its Feb. 5 meeting, that struggle to oversee the handling of money after the budget season also appears to be heating up.

Council President Scott Peters said he sensed that the mayor’s statement represented his desire to circumvent the separation of powers in the City Charter. When voters amended the City Charter to adopt the strong-mayor system, the mayor was removed from the City Council and handed control of day-to-day management of the city bureaucracy. Also

under the law, the mayor proposes a budget, which is subject to the approval by a majority of the council. Peters said Sanders needed to respect that balance of power.

“He will have to learn, and he can do that by reading the charter or by going through a very difficult process,” Peters said.

Peters’ comments illustrate the power the council still holds under the strong-mayor structure. Sanders has put together a plan that targets eight big-ticket areas that suffer deficits or underfunding: pensions, retiree health care; compliance with stormwater regulations, compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; deferred maintenance of streets and city facilities; the city’s legal liability fund; worker’s compensation; and cash reserves. All told, Sanders hopes to dedicate about $106 million above and beyond the city’s typical investment in these areas.

After claiming layoffs and service cuts were likely as a mayoral candidate in 2005, Sanders deferred those decisions during his first budget season. Asserting that he had just months to assemble a financial team to assess the city’s books, the mayor produced a financial plan that was similar in size and makeup to the budget passed by the council under former Mayor Dick Murphy.

Since shepherding through that placeholder budget, Sanders has foreshadowed that chipping away at the city’s billion-dollar liabilities is a foremost priority for the 2008 budget. In order to do so, the city may have to scale back the funding for community services that council members championed in memos they prepared this week, such as recreation programs, public libraries and graffiti cleanup.

“While painful, the mayor believes the time has come to structurally fix the city’s situation this year, and that means meaningfully addressing the eight critical operations that the city has ignored for more than a decade,” Sainz said. “The unfortunate implication of that is that something’s got to give.”

The council has already signaled that it is looking for compromise from the mayor. Andrea Tevlin, the council’s independent budget analyst, said that the mayor’s proposal to pour an extra $27 million into the pension fund on top of the city’s regular annual contribution is admirable, but should be scrutinized. Paying off other shortfalls with some of that money, such as retiree health, could be more prudent, she said.

“We’re not saying it shouldn’t happen, but it needs to be considered in the framework of everything else that we’re dealing with,” Tevlin said.

Other council members are looking for some flexibility form the mayor’s hard-line approach to cuts. Several council members mentioned in memos outlining their budget priorities this week that they desire pay increases for police officers, who were found to have salaries that lag other cities in a recent study, and to maintain parks, recreation centers and libraries at the current levels.

“He has expressed a willingness to work with us.” Councilman Ben Hueso said. “We’ll see how much willingness there is. I’m personally not taking anything for granted.”

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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