Less than two years after Mesa officials faced difficult budget choices, multimillion-dollar cuts and employee layoffs, 35 more city workers are losing their jobs to cover a projected $2.5 million deficit.
The job cuts announced Tuesday are all in the city’s building safety division, where city officials attributed that department’s shortfall to a steep decline in money it generates from the construction industry.
“We’re seeing a drop-off in permit revenues,” said Terry Williams, head of the building safety division. “We’re being impacted in the same way as the construction industry.”
In the first six months of this budget year, the department has reaped $4.7 million from building-related revenue. In the healthier economic times of the 2005-06 budget year, the department pulled in $5.4 million in the same time frame, according to city officials. That’s a nearly 13 percent change.
City officials predict a continued decline. Housing foreclosures and slowing commercial investment have swept the East Valley and led to less consumer spending that is tightening government wallets across Arizona.
In Mesa, a $12.5 million deficit has been forecast over the rest of this budget year, ending June 30, and into the 2008-09 budget year.
Steve Wright, the city’s public information officer, said the building safety budget is not a bellwether of a larger, looming budget hole — despite the fact that other city departments are under a mandate to cut 5 percent from their spending.
Mesa is already operating on a lean budget.
Just two years ago, the city cut $14 million. Cultural grants and community events were eliminated and the bad budget also led to layoffs of a handful of employees.
Those cuts made a leaner operation, which could limit the city’s ability to absorb into other parts of its organization the 35 employees laid off Tuesday.
The city eliminated some 140 vacant positions as part of its budget trimming over the last two years. But Mesa officials said the laid-off building safety employees could be placed in other positions in the city.
“There’s a complete process they go through where they present their qualifications,” Wright said. “They’ll provide a résumé and look at all the positions that are open.”
It’s unclear what impact the layoffs could have on the building safety division. The department has been the subject of a recent city audit that criticized erroneous calculations of building impact fees.
Laying off one-third of the department could slow down the work of building permit technicians, inspectors, plan reviewers and field inspectors. Williams said he simply didn’t know how the cuts would affect the department.
“The city manager is asking me that, and we are coming up with a plan for review,” he said.
Bryan Raines, assistant city manager, did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Neither did Chuck Odom, the city’s lead budget officer.
Despite little information from the city’s top financial officials, it’s clear that city departments are working to comply with a city mandate to slash 5 percent.
On Jan. 23, police Chief George Gascón said his department would slash $7.2 million by reducing overtime, buying less equipment and reducing responses to nonserious calls for police.
Gascón is in front of the curve. Mike Dunn, deputy fire chief, said his department hasn’t identified how to make up its own multimillion-dollar deficit.
The fire department has been tracking a dangerous rise in response times to emergencies, something city officials have used as a case for a proposed bond package in November.
For now, however, cuts in the already undermanned fire department are on the way. Dunn said that retaining firefighters is essential, and that cuts could come down to a “balancing act” between department support staff and administrators.
“It’s a sign of the times,” he said. “There’s a lot of things on the table.”
Ray Villa, neighborhood service director, said he would look at eliminating vacant positions in the 59-person department and attempt to avoid layoffs.
“Some of these things we have to take a hard look at. We’ve already become a lot more efficient than we ever were before, and we can only be so efficient if we’re eliminating positions,” he said. “When we do that, programs have to suffer.”