In his usual fashion, Oro Valley Mayor Satish Hiremath allowed each member of council to speak first when it came to last Wednesday’s discussion over the town’s tentative budget adoption.
But when Hiremath did weigh in, more than two hours into the discussion, he dropped a bomb on Councilman Mike Zinkin, who leading to that point was questioning whether cuts could be made to the police department and town employees’ health insurance benefits.
Referencing a recent trip to Washington D.C. in which Zinkin attended a Congressional City Conference for the National League of Cities, Hiremath accused Zinkin of being fiscally irresponsible with taxpayer dollars by not composing a trip report upon returning.
“Your trip to Washington D.C. – you spent over $2,000, and your trip report was the agenda for the meeting,” said Hiremath. “It’s very difficult for me, on behalf of the employees, to hear you talk about fiscal responsibility, and yet the irony of it is that your actions don’t really connotate that.”
Zinkin, who said he came away from the trip with tangible benefits, took exception to Hiremath’s comments.
“Quite frankly, I did put out an email to staff saying I was really concerned about the cost of this,” said Zinkin. “My original cost of ticket was like three times what the town ended up paying for it, so I really am somewhat concerned that you’re throwing that in my face, because I was there with the advice and consent from senior (town) staff members.”
The conference brings together 2,000 elected and appointed city leaders to focus on federal policy issues that are important to local government, such as public safety, immigration reform, federal tax code, and federal job creation.
Councilman Joe Hornat, who playfully acknowledged he often disagrees with Zinkin, defended the trip report.
“His trip report is the same trip report that I would turn in if I was doing that, (which) is the agenda,” said Hornat. “We’ve seen that before. There isn’t any reason for someone to write a dissertation unless somebody’s got questions.”
While Zinkin found backing in that instance, he got no support from his fellow council members when it came to increasing health benefits costs for employees.
Zinkin requested that employees pay 10 percent more than they currently pay for health insurance.
“An increase in medical charges for employees, I think this is a bad year for that,” said Councilman Brendan Burns.
Hornat agreed, adding it would be bad for employee morale.
The police department budget has been another point of contention between council members. Up 9.2 percent year over year, some members of council are looking at where to make cuts, while others want to leave it as proposed in the tentative budget.
Council members Bill Garner and Mary Snider continued a debate from the April 3 meeting regarding whether or not take-home police vehicles could result in cost savings.
In that meeting, Snider defended take-home cars, arguing they are beneficial to community safety and allow a quicker response time in the event of an emergency. She also told Garner to “check his facts” when it came to the practices of other police departments in surrounding areas regarding take-homes.
Garner, who said he is merely looking for ways to make the department more efficient, fired back.
“I do get my facts straight, because it’s very important for me to understand this,” said Garner. “I’m not an expert in the police science area, I don’t profess to be one. Again, it’s common sense to me. This is management 101. Let’s manage, let’s get efficient, let’s look at things we can do innovatively here in this community so we can be number one.”
Garner said he wants to look into hybrid police vehicles to save gas money and called for incentive programs for college graduates entering the police field.
“Let’s take care of the people on the streets serving our citizens, that’s what I’m looking for, that’s what I’ve always looked for,” he said. “Even though I get painted in the corner like I’m the bad guy always out for the police department, I am not that way.”
Commonly referenced amongst council was a study conducted by Mercury Associates that compares the value of assigned police vehicles to pooled vehicles.
In that study, conducted in the City of Tacoma, evidence shows that: operating costs were 30 percent lower for assigned vehicles than pooled vehicles, pooled vehicles had to be replaced every 20-26 months compared to an average of 60 months for assigned vehicles, and lower damage costs were incurred with assigned vehicles. Additional money ($200,000) was saved by not having to provide a secured parking facility for its vehicles.
Snider suggested the study supported the benefits of take-home vehicles, but Zinkin argued the statistics apply to “assigned” vehicles, which may not necessarily act as take-home vehicles.
Zinkin has been the most outspoken in exploring potential cuts to the police budget. Multiple times he has voiced concern over the number of officers per thousand residents.
Oro Valley has 2.5 officers per 1,000 residents. Zinkin pointed out that Arizona cities such as Gilbert and Avondale have less.
He said he is not looking to fire officers, only to stop hiring more.
Hiremath disagreed with measuring such numbers based solely on population, citing an increase in businesses, travel, community events, and tourism to the town.
Between his suggested cuts to employee health benefits, the police department, and a reduction in funding for town surveys, Zinkin calculated a $429,000 savings. He said he would like to use that money to build a new dog park, install drinking fountains along walking trails, increase arts and culture, and better maintain the grass in parks.
In another line item, council was divided on whether it should provide $30,000 in funding to the Oro Valley Greater Chamber of Commerce. The original amount requested by the chamber was $25,000. Hiremath suggested an increase based on additional responsibilities that will come with the town’s recent annexation.
Council voted 6-1 in favor of the $93.9 million budget, with Garner voting against. The tentative approval sets only a spending cap. Final budget approval is scheduled for May 15.