City Hall

Crisis Averted? Phoenix City Council Sidesteps Bitter Arguments, Approves Budget

For the past week, members of the Phoenix City Council have been at each other's throats.

Members sparred over the expansion of the light rail, threatened to fire the city manager, and refused to approve the city budget, with the new financial year set to begin on July 1.

But on Wednesday, council members managed to paper over their bitter disagreements to approve the 2018-19 operating budget at the 11th hour, avoiding an uncertain slide into the new financial year.

It was unclear how the city would continue to function if the Council didn't approve a budget at the meeting. Luckily for Phoenix residents concerned about city services, it never came to that, with council members voting 6-1 in favor of the spending plan.

Turbulence at the Council has been brewing since the mayor's resignation in late May and a brawl over the light rail's expansion.

One week ago, council members failed to pass the final operating budget for 2018-19 when Councilman Michael Nowakowski voted down the final budget in what was supposed to be a routine rubber-stamping of the spending plan.

With former mayor Greg Stanton absent — he resigned on May 29 to run for Congress — the Council deadlocked, four to four. Councilman Sal DiCiccio, Councilwoman Laura Pastor, and Vice Mayor Jim Waring also voted no.

Nowakowski said he voted no because he was dissatisfied with the status of the light rail's South Central extension. The project, approved by voters in a 2015 referendum on transit funding, would reduce vehicle lanes to one way in each direction on six miles of South Central Avenue, to the chagrin of some business owners.

But by Wednesday, Nowakowski had made his peace with the budget now that the Council has sent the light rail design back to Valley Metro for further review. In fact, Nowakowski didn't even mention the light rail before casting his vote; instead, he discussed the need for increased police in parks.

South Phoenix residents and business owners have protested the South Central light rail extension at Council meetings since this spring, disrupting the Council's normal agenda.

They've found a receptive audience in the anti-light rail council members and, to a lesser extent, Interim Mayor Thelda Williams. She placed the South Central extension on the agenda for Council action last week, which saw council members instruct Valley Metro to study the feasibility of maintaining four lanes of traffic.

At that meeting, the light rail extension narrowly survived a proposal from Waring to put the project to another citywide vote, which Valley Metro CEO Scott Smith said would effectively kill the project. Nearly $600 million in federal transit funds would evaporate as a result, Smith said.

Nowakowski wasn't the only council member who had a change of heart, as the upcoming budgetary year loomed. Pastor changed her vote to approve Wednesday's budget, but not before reiterating some of the concerns brought forward by a group of protesters in the audience who asked for a fund to support victims of police violence.

Before the council members approved the budget, the activists had protested the plan, arguing it didn't provide resources to victims of police violence.

Viridiana Hernandez, the executive director of the Center for Neighborhood Leadership, named several people who had been shot by police in the recent past, and asked council members to create legal defense and trauma compensation funds for people "victimized" by the Phoenix Police Department.

In the first five months of 2018, officers have shot 23 people already. The department shot 21 people total in all of 2017, police statistics show.

"Every year, you take money from us that funds [a] police force that shoots, that kills, that hurts our neighbors," Hernandez said. "Every year, you take money — thousands of dollars — from undocumented Phoenicians and fund a police force that is collaborating with ICE."

During the citizen's comment section of the meeting, eight people stood up near the front row of the audience, silently holding signs with various messages, including "Am I Next?" and "It's Our Money!"

Williams told them to sit down or leave. “Officers, would you like to escort them out please?" she added. "They are out of order."

The protesters walked out of their own accord, chanting, "City Council stays silent, police stay violent."

Pastor echoed some of their concerns after they exited. She called for an analysis to see what resources are available to serve Phoenix residents who have experienced violent or traumatic events. The effort could incorporate nonprofits and behavioral health specialists, she said.

Even though the budget got approved, there were lingering signs of tension between council members and city staff.

While explaining her vote, Pastor lightly reprimanded City Manager Ed Zuercher over the budget process, saying it has operated in the same way for 25 years. She encouraged Zuercher "to truly engage the community" on it.
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty