Children sang, citizens spoke, and protesters railed at the most recent community hearing on the newly approved Phoenix food tax.
The hearing at Burton Barr Central Library on Tuesday night was the seventh of 15 scheduled hearings around the Valley for citizens to voice their opinions on the food tax. Phoenix Vice Mayor Mike Nowakowski, district council members Bill Gates and Peggy Neely, and City Manager David Cavazos sat around for two hours answering questions and listening to concerns -- and there were plenty of them.
On February 2, the Phoenix City Council voted in favor of a temporary, 2 percent tax on food to offset budget woes. Phoenix is presently only one of three cities in Maricopa County that doesn't have a food tax, but now it's facing a budget shortfall of $241.4 million.
Phoenix Vice Mayor Nowakowski says 353 police officers and 140 firefighters will be laid off, among other community cuts. City Council members say the food tax is a necessary to prevent further cuts. "It wasn't something we wanted to do," Nowakowski said. "It was an act of emergency."
The tax would go into effect in April if it receives final approval at the City Council's March 2 meeting. Council members say the money generated from the tax -- an estimated $62.5 million through June, 2011 -- would be used to restore jobs and services in the police and fire departments, as well as "community enrichment" and transportation.
So far, the series of hearings on the tax has brought out hundreds of concerned citizens. The hearing at Burton Barr started with a long procession of children from the Phoenix Center for the Arts and Phoenix Children's Chorus, who sang, carried signs, and chanted "Save our arts, save our home!"
They were among the many people who voiced support for the food tax. The city's "Emergency Food Tax Allocation Plan" allots $7.4 million to restoring community centers and parks; $3.6 million would be allotted for restoring programs and hours at city libraries.
But the bulk of the food tax revenue -- $32.9 million -- would go toward public safety, and preventing further layoffs in the police and fire departments, which have already faced cuts of 11 to 14 percent. And not everyone is thrilled with that idea.
A group called Americans for Prosperity, Arizona, was visible at the Burton Barr hearing, wearing Guy Fawkes masks and carrying protest signs that read things like "Food Tax = Poor Tax."
According to the fliers, the group was handing out before the hearing, Americans for Prosperity don't believe the city needs to cut police and fire to balance its budget, and should instead cut "other city jobs" and use public-private partnerships to maintain community centers, parks, and libraries.
But other groups, like CitizensForPhoenix.org, say the food tax is necessary. "We want to protect our vital services -- police, fire -- in the short run," says Citizens for Phoenix member Brian Hill. "So we support the tax, but we also propose an external audit to make the city more accountable for its spending. And we think the tax should be shortened to a two-year window."
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Under the council's current proposal, the food tax would be in effect for five years. But while groups such as CitizensForPhoenix.org support the food tax for public safety services, most of the citizens who attended the Burton Barr hearing voiced more concern for the preservation of the city's libraries, parks, and transportation.
"Libraries and schools are an investment in our future," said Phoenix resident Ken Knudsen. "You don't cut investments. Things I'd rather see on the chopping block are prisons, jails, and Sheriff Arpaio's wasteful ways. A lot of police are saying we need more police. We have enough police."
There are eight more community hearings on the food tax scheduled before the City Council's final review on March 2, including a hearing tonight at the Madison School District Office. For a complete list of upcoming hearings, as well as the city's food-tax-allocation plan, visit phoenix.gov/budget.