Gilbert Town Council finalizes budget, property tax levy in marathon session

Gilbert Town Council
The Gilbert Town Council passed its budget and property tax levy for fiscal year 2020-21. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Gilbert Town Council passed its budget and property tax levy for fiscal year 2020-21. (Tom Blodgett/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Gilbert Town Council passed a $992.84 million budget and a $25.88 million secondary property tax levy at a highly charged meeting June 16 that lasted nearly five hours.

Council passed the issues on 5-2 votes with Council Members Jared Taylor and Aimee Yentes voting in dissent on both.

Mayor Jenn Daniels and council members acknowledged they had received a deluge of calls and emails from citizens on the issues, mostly against the increase in the levy or some spending in the budget, particularly against a proposed possible expansion of town ambulance service.

Several members of the public also spoke to council about the items, all urging votes against the levy, budget and/or ambulance service. Many of them had protested outside before the council went into an executive session before the regular meeting, which was the first council meeting in three months open to in-person public attendance.

Proponents on council said they were voting for the levy and budget as the most fiscally responsible course of action for the town.


Secondary property tax levy

The levy is a $1.73 million increase from fiscal year 2020-21’s $24.15 million levy. It covers the coming fiscal year’s debt service from voter-approved bonds for street works and the Public Safety Training Facility.

Resident Christine Accurso in public comments and later Taylor from the dais proposed the town cut the levy to its 2016 level of $19.5 million to give property tax relief to small-business owners and residents.

Taylor then proposed using about $6 million from the general fund to pay the remaining debt service obligation for the year.

Other council members pushed back that such a levy cut actually would cause a $3 million to $5 million tax increase over time as it would slow the town’s repayment of the debt and thus increase interest costs.

Vice Mayor Scott Anderson came strongly to the defense of what the property levy pays for.

“We know what our obligations are, and they are right on our priorities, which are safety and traffic,” Anderson said.

Daniels said many town residents had received a robocall, which illegally did not disclose its funding source, that said council was raising property taxes to pay for an ambulance service. The levy cannot, by state law, pay for that service since the service is not funded by voter-approved bonds. Daniels said most residents she spoke to on the matter felt misled by the robocall when she explained how the bonds, levy and rate work.

Budget

The budget is a decrease from the FY 2019-20 budget of $1.05 billion. Budget Director Kelly Pfost said most of the savings comes from the completion of some capital improvement projects that are coming off the books.

The budget also includes three checkpoints that trigger more and more cuts if post-COVID-19 revenues do match projections.

Yentes said the budget process should have started with cuts, and Taylor said he believed the budget included at least $20 million-$60 million in wasteful spending, underscoring new hiring such as a wellness coordinator among 82 full-time equivalent positions added. Taylor said he would hold new hiring to only detectives and dispatch operators for police.

Other council members largely indicated they were satisfied that the revenue checkpoints were sufficient to handle the economic downturn.

Ambulance service

One budget item received particular scrutiny: ambulance service. The town opened a limited line of ambulance service from one fire station in November.

The town at that time indicated it needed to open the line of service to protect a Certificate of Necessity that the town received on ambulance service. It did so, officials said, to protect against disruptions in the private ambulance service market, as had happened in 2013-14.

In the 2020-21 budget, the town included placeholder money to expand the service across town, with staff indicating that discussions about doing so would be held during the coming year and that it would only be done with council approval.

By state law, the town could not add to the budget in such a manner in the midst of the fiscal year, so the money would have to be put in place in the current budget, though it could potentially go largely unspent, staff said.

Fire and Rescue Chief Jim Jobusch presented to council how the expansion would work and said private contractor AMR, which holds most service in town, had become increasingly difficult to communicate and negotiate with as the company holds a virtual monopoly in the market.

Yentes was sharply critical of the proposal on several fronts, including the timing of the presentation, the transparency of the proposal, the costs and government replacing the private sector where the company was meeting expectations.

She said she believed the town may have negotiated in bad faith with AMR and was more frustrated than she had ever been on the dais because of the item. She added that approving the budget with the service in it would signal that this is the direction the town is going to take.

Council Member Bill Spence said he had spent much time researching the service, talking with the Arizona Department of Health Services about the Certificate of Necessity process and appeals, plus other fire departments in the area and across the nation with ambulance service. Spence said the town has the opportunity to improve service, not just being on time but early on calls where minutes matter and lives are in the balance.

Council Member Scott Anderson said he, like Yentes, was concerned about the lack of transparency with the public on the proposal and said the town must address that going forward.

Daniels and Town Manager Patrick Banger committed to having public involvement going forward before any decision to implement the service is made.

Council Member Scott September said he shares concerns about government encroaching on private business but that this case may be different because AMR operates like a monopoly.

Other items

  • Council approved the 2021-30 Capital Improvement Plan by a 5-2 vote with Taylor and Yentes dissenting. Taylor said he believed the plan needed to be tighter.

  • Council approved $99,311 for an assessment on a crime lab for the town on a 5-2 vote with Taylor and Yentes dissenting. Taylor questioned the need to do it since the city has a strong partnership with Mesa on a crime lab. Daniels said this was just an early exploratory move for something that could be several years down the line.

  • Council Member Yung Koprowski issued a statement in the wake of protests of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis and other racial incidents. Koprowski said many people want immediate action but cautioned against immediate but ineffective action. She said she will be participating in listening sessions.

  • Daniels said that while she had received emails calling for the town to defund the police, the town unequivocally will not do so, stating her support for public safety workers.

  • The town’s Fourth of July fireworks show this year will be a drive-in experience with no lawn seating at Crossroads Park.




By Tom Blodgett

Editor, Gilbert

Raised in Arizona, Tom Blodgett has spent more than 30 years in journalism in Arizona and joined Community Impact Newspaper in July 2018 to launch the Gilbert edition. He is a graduate of Arizona State University, where he served as an instructional professional in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication from 2005-19 and remains editorial adviser to The State Press, the university's independent student media outlet.



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