Poetry or potholes? How should Phoenix spend its money?

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas
By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- With concerns over the city budget, questions are being raised about how Phoenix should spend its money.

One controversial plan is a publicly financed art program that uses poetry to get people to recycle, but there are some city leaders who want the money to be used on other city services like fixing potholes, not poems.

Phoenix is a city in trouble. Faced with a $38 million budget deficit, city leaders are threatening to close parks, community centers and eliminate hundreds of jobs.

Given the financial crisis, some are now wondering why the city plans to shell out tens of thousands of dollars on poems.

"There are ways that poetry can reach people and spark people to all kinds of actions that maybe we can't predict," said Ed Lebow, director of the city's public art program.

He said the poems on Seventh Avenue are supposed to inspire people to recycle.

"We're always looking for new ways to reach new audiences and express new things," he said.

The project started nearly a decade ago. Last year, it cost taxpayers $20,000 to buy and install the poems.

It's impossible to tell how effective these signs are, but for one passerby the intended meaning of recycling was lost.

"I don't know what it means, but I got sexual innuendos on there," said Phoenix resident Brian Whitney.

There are plans to pay out $60,000 to maintain the project over the next three years, but Councilman Jim Waring would like to kill it now. He thinks it is a waste of taxpayer money.

"I don't think there's probably one person who's recycling because of these poems," Waring said. "If there is such a person out there, certainly my office would like to hear from them and we can have a healthy debate about the merits of the recycling poetry poem."

Waring believes the council has the power to end the project and direct the money to other cash-strapped areas of the city.

"It's not a huge amount of money, in that case I think about $56,000, but realistically it sends a terrible signal to a strapped city," he said.

The money comes out of the city capital budget not the general fund. For that reason, defenders say art programs like this also work as an economic stimulus by creating jobs.