Census results, state budget cuts and a slowed economy has caused the Town of Oro Valley to face tough decisions regarding its 2011-2012 fiscal year.

Town Manager Jerene Watson is proposing a $94 million budget that calls for a utility tax increase and discontinuing the Coyote Run Transit program altogether. The proposal also eliminates 36 staff positions; of those, 23 have remained vacant since the 2008 hiring freeze was implemented.

Over the last three years, Watson told council members, 60 positions have been eliminated as revenues continued to decline.

“From a personnel standpoint, which is our most significant resource and expense, there is concern about worker mobility,” Watson said in her summary to council. “If the national economy or other metro areas are rebounding much faster, some employees may be enticed to relocate. When exodus happens, for whatever reason, organizations struggle significantly as they continually train new hires. This translates to a loss of talent, lower levels of customer service and lesser performance.”

Of the staff being cut, 13 of those will come from the transit program, which will cease operations on June 30. Riders will now be forced to find alternatives, which may include programs offered regionally.

Watson says eliminating the program saves the city $220,000.

Besides the employees losing their jobs, Oro Valley residents will be losing a program they have come to rely on over the years.

Arlene Ramfell has lived in Oro Valley for six years, and after losing her husband last year, Coyote Run became her way to get out of the house during the day. She uses the transit program to go shopping, get a haircut, go to the doctor, the dentist and to meet friends. She estimated using the program at least three times a week.

“My dentist is all the way on the east side,” she said. “I don’t want to change dentists at this stage in my life. I’m 81 years old.”

Council members and staff promise to help active riders like Ramfell find an alternative before the program is fully eliminated.

Dexter Jones is not disabled and can drive her own car, but she needs a transit program such as Coyote Run twice a month when she gets eye injections.

“They pick me up on time and take me to the doctor. They are always so courteous,” she said of the Coyote Run system. “I am devastated; it is like we all have been eliminated. I understand the budget needs, but it seems to me that there are other ways to cut back on the budget.”

Councilman William Garner has made the same argument, but with little budget discussion to date and time limits, he lost the debate, with a vote to eliminate the program being approved 6-1.

Last week, the council also voted to keep the employee insurance rate about the same as it has been, with the town paying 80 percent, and the employees being responsible for 20 percent.

Despite a proposal to increase the percentage of the town’s responsibility to 90 percent, and dropping the employees’ cost to 10 percent, the council voted against it, opting to save $43,000.

Mayor Satish Hiremath argued that employees deserve some appreciation, wanting the council to consider moving up to the 90/10 plan.

While Coyote Run’s fate and the employee insurance plan have already been settled, the council still has plenty to discuss in the upcoming weeks.

Looking at a 19-percent decrease from last year’s $116 million budget, the council still has to consider possible tax increases.

With little wiggle room in what Watson is calling a tight budget, there may not be a lot of room for debate.

While the town will save by cutting Coyote Run, to increase revenues in the coming year, residents are facing a utility-tax increase. Watson budgeted an added $1.3 million in revenues, pushing the utility tax from 2 to 4 percent.

Watson said the town will also be required to levy fees totally $57,156 on water-utility customers to partially fund the Department of Water Resources.

Residents have been angry over the proposal, noting that tough economic times is not the time to tax citizens.

Council members are expected to vote on the increase during the May 4 meeting.

While most departments will take a hit in the 2011-2012 fiscal year, which begins July 1, Watson is proposing a 4.6 increase for the police department.

The police department’s budget is proposed to increase from $11.5 million in the current fiscal year, to just over $12 million next year.

Watson said the increase is due to $467,000 for fleet costs, and $102,000 for information technology costs.

The clerk’s office has a 20-percent increase budgeted, but Watson stressed that is because of the $110,000 required for next year’s elections.

The remaining departments are facing between 3-percent and 29-percent decreases.

The goal of the recommended budget is to get Oro Valley more in line with actual population numbers, rather than the aggressive projections made over the last five years.

While town officials had expected a population increase between 43,000 and 45,000, actual numbers released in the 2010 Census showed the town population is 41,011.

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