First look at utility rate hikes, plus more from Gilbert's two-day council retreat

Gilbert Town Council retreat
Gilbert Town Council members and town staff met Nov. 8-9 in retreat to discuss areas of importance to the town. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Gilbert Town Council members and town staff met Nov. 8-9 in retreat to discuss areas of importance to the town. (Screenshot via YouTube)

Gilbert Town Council got a first look at proposed town utility rate hikes at its fall retreat Nov. 8-9 at the Southeast Valley Regional Library.

The hikes had been delayed last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, with council directing some of the town’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act money to be used to prop up the town’s enterprise funds, preventing them from going under their minimum fund balance.

However, council will need to approve the rate hikes in spring, staff told members, to avoid that happening as the CARES Act funding runs out.

The utility rates were just one of the topics covered in the two-day retreat, where staff members bring council members up to date on items which the council has directed them to study or which have become a concern.

If council approves, the town will publish a notice to increase rates Dec. 14 and would consider the proposal in 2022, with an April 1 start to the increases, according to staff.

Under the current proposal, the base residential water meter fee for a ¾-inch water meter would go from $16.30 to $21.13 a month. Larger meters would have similar increases of nearly 30%.

Water volume rates would go up in step-scale fashion to encourage conservation, Deputy Public Works Director Eric Braun said. The minimum increase for residents would be $0.22 per 1,000-8,000 gallons while non-residential uses would see an increase of $0.54 per 1,000 for domestics uses and $0.72 per 1,000 gallons for landscape uses.

Gilbert has had the lowest water rates among 13 peer municipalities in the Valley, and under the proposal, it would still have the second lowest behind Chandler.

Environmental Services residential and business rates also will be increased in part due to disruptions in the recycling markets in the past few years.

For residents, the monthly fee for a one-gallon container would go from $14.80 to $19.03. Other container fees and a number of one-time fees also would be increased.

Commercial customers also would see increases in a number of different services offered to them through the city, though those customers also can use private services.

Staff also asked council for direction on how often they should come to them for rate increases. The town has raised water rates just twice in the past 18 years, the last time in 2018. Braun asked council if they should go out more frequently for smaller increases or wait until they must go out to preserve minimum fund balances but end up asking for much larger increases.

Council members expressed diverse opinions on the subject, but coalesced around going more frequently though not as much as every couple years unless necessary.

Community Engagement Task Force

Council will be asked at its next meeting to present a new Community Engagement Task Force, the results of more than a year of efforts to consider how to grow the community’s welcoming nature and sense of belonging as well as strengthen the bonds that unite the community, Council Member Kathy Tilque said.

The prioritized focus topics from council include domestic violence; mental health and suicide prevention; homelessness and low income challenges; human and sex trafficking; and diversity, equity and inclusion. The topics also were identified as important in the 2019 community needs assessment.

The task force would consist of nine residents appointed by council for two years. The task force would meet monthly in public meetings. Its recommendations would be advisory and not binding upon the council.

If council approves, the town will seek applicants in December with appointments coming in January and February. Members would spend the spring review needs assessments and identifying opportunities for community engagement and actions to be taken.

An action plan would be presented to council in May or June.

Shade and streetscape master plan

Staff reviewed for council the status of a shade and streetscape master plan for the town. Staff members have collected data on shade in the town, including shade coverage, measured at 13.85%, and the number of documented trees, calculated at 17,082.

The town has developed a goal of 30% shade coverage in developed areas of town, according to staff’s presentation.

Staff also told council that for Gilbert to continue to receive its Tree City USA designation from the Arbor Day Foundation, it must add a tree department or tree board, and have a tree care ordinance. Staff and council discussed the possibilities for those things without making any commitments.

Police department major projects

Gilbert Police Chief Michael Soelberg also gave council an update on the department’s two major projects: a possible victim advocacy center and a department crime lab.

The advocacy center would put all of the interviews and resources and a crime victim needs under one roof to reduce time and trauma for the victim.

Currently, the proposed site is adjacent to the Town of Gilbert’s Public Safety Building, located at 90 E. Civic Center Drive, Gilbert. However, the proposal will not go before council until March, and construction would not start until October 2023, with a proposed opening in March or April 2025.

The proposed 26,266-square-foot building would cost $24.3 million.

The town also is considering its needs for its own crime lab. Currently, the town gets services from the Arizona Department of Public Safety and the City of Mesa Police Department. However, DPS services are limited and slow, city staff said, and the demand on the Mesa police is expected to grow in coming years as it takes on more municipal partners.

The town is negotiating an extension on the agreement with Mesa, which expires July 1, but Mesa is asking for a 25.2% increase in money to provide the services.

Soelberg said cost estimates for Gilbert to have its own crime lab run from $36 million-$45 million for construction and equipment, depending on if it were built just for Gilbert or for Gilbert to take on municipal partners. Annual operating costs would run from $2.9 million to $3.7 million, again depending on whether partners would be involved.

Chandler voters just approved a bond for that city’s police department to build its own lab, and council directed Gilbert police to continue looking at its options, including a partnership with Chandler.

Town signature, destination events

During the retreat, the town reviewed its efforts to have signature or destination events in Gilbert. For the purposes of this, Gilbert is considering signature events to be more local events for residents while destination events would bring people from out of town to visit Gilbert.

Both types of events would boost spending in town, but destination events bring more from outside and fill room nights at local hotels, according to the city.

The town saw the potential for the boost from signature events at the town’s Fourth of July celebration, which Parks and Recreation put on for the first time at Gilbert Regional Park with more than 20,000 people attending.

Parks and Recreation Director Robert Carmona called it was an eye-opening experience and staff learned much from putting it on.

Carmona said the town’s sweet spot for a good experience is up to about 10,000 visitors at an event.

Two new events coming into town in the next year are a Ripken Baseball tournament at Cactus Yards to be held June 12-17 with 64 teams and an estimated 3,360 visitors; and Boots in the Park traveling country concert series, which previously only had been held at California venues. Jon Pardi will headline the concert March 19 at Gilbert Regional Park, which previously was expected to be held at Tempe Beach Park in September but was postponed with a venue change when Tempe required attendees to have proof of vaccination. Expected attendance is 7,500-10,000.

Carmona said the town does want to balance the events’ positives with residents’ concerns about traffic, noise and closures.

Northwest area redevelopment and revitalization

Lastly, staff reviewed for council how considerations about making the town’s Northwest Employment Corridor a redevelopment area as designated under state law.

The town previously used the redevelopment area designation to bring life to the Heritage District, Redevelopment Program Manager Amanda Elliott said, but the Northwest area’s character as an industry hub is different from the Heritage District, which she described more as a community living room.

The principal concern brought forth from staff was what boundaries to use for the area, with different configurations presented with pros and cons.

However, Council Member Aimee Yentes urged her fellow council members to go into the discussion with eyes open toward what the designation means. Yentes said the designation could create a shift in property taxes as an unintended consequence about which council should be careful.

Council asked for a future presentation on the legalities involved with the designation.

Other items of note:

  • The town could begin a tool-lending program to assist with large neighborhood projects or small residential cleanups or projects.

  • Staff and council discussed the possibility of a property maintenance code or preservation ordinance. Mayor Brigette Peterson said if the town went in that direction, she would prefer it not be too onerous on residents.

  • The attendees reviewed the ordinances involved with small cell wireless facilities and group homes, both of which have become areas of concern for residents after recent incidents. However, state and federal laws generally tie the hands of the town in doing anything about either, according to the city. Still, Development Services Director Kyle Mieras said the wireless companies generally have worked to be cooperative and “good neighbors,” and Police Chief Michael Soelberg said group homes usually work quietly without neighbors even knowing they are there, sparking few calls.

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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