Arizona’s lawmakers aren’t just slashing state spending, taxes and regulations — they’re bringing their philosophical approach to cities in their larger quest for limited government.
Their push includes slashing impact fees on new homes, forcing cities to deny or approve permits within 60 days and making cities put some services for bid.
The array of changes that may be coming to local governments has alarmed East Valley municipalities, who fear the state is imposing huge expenses on local taxpayers. Critics say lawmakers are intentionally or unwittingly forcing their problems on cities — which could force municipalities to cut services or raise taxes to meet public demand.
And many state-level cuts to health care and social services will likely shift additional costs to cities that would strain police and firefighters. That happened in the last recession as the number of calls to 911 spiked, said Forrest Smith, a Mesa Fire Department spokesman.
The impact doesn’t seem apparent when the cuts are made, he said, likening cuts to health care and social services to a tsunami.
“In a situation like this with all these cuts going through the Legislature, it seems like a small wave,” he said. “But it’s people in the community who see the impact. They’re on the shore when it comes crashing down.”
Mesa fire has 140 volunteers who can fill some gaps and the city is now screening 911 calls so two-person crews can respond to less serious situations. The increased efficiency has helped, Fire Chief Harry Beck said, but he warned of a growing burden as people consider police and firefighters the clearinghouse for neighborhood emergencies as other government-funded services dwindle.
“We are the safety net for the community,” he said. “If all else fails, they dial 911 and they’ll get police and fire. It’s an unfunded mandate, essentially, that we have to deal with.”
For police, cuts to after-school programs or youth activities translate to kids with idle time. That can lead to trouble, Mesa police Sgt. Ed Wessing said. This comes after years of cuts have left Mesa with 75 fewer sworn officers, from a peak of 835.
“There can be a correlation where you can cut this but it can add a burden on the public safety side,” he said. “Those kids aren’t in a park and are now getting in a fight, or maybe it’s graffiti.”
Many legislative proposals would limit city regulation and taxes. SB 1125 would limit impact fees for new homes to things more directly related to a specific development. The fees vary widely by city and are calculated by what officials deem are proportional costs that a development puts on roads, waterlines, parks, public safety and more. Critics argue the fees may not be spent for decades and that they’ve gotten so expensive that families can’t afford new homes. Chandler’s charge exceeds $22,000 for each new home.
The impact fee limits don’t cut any state expenses and only benefit homebuilders, said Dennis Strachota, Chandler’s management services director. He dismisses the idea lower fees will spur construction, noting home construction continues to plummet nationwide. And new homes will only further depress the value of existing homes given the high number of vacant and foreclosed properties, Strachota said.
“Taxpayers are getting hit twice,” he said. “They’re having to pay the costs clearly associated with new development and they’re seeing their housing prices go down, and their mortgages are even more underwater,” he said.
One of the few elected leaders at the municipal level who supports the Legislature’s broad approach is Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who represents Ahwatukee Foothills. The Great Recession forced businesses to make big changes to their operations, he said, while government has stubbornly held on to its ways. He opposes raising taxes and fees in this economy and has lobbied for SB 1322, which would require cities of 500,000 or more to get bids on services that cost more than $50,000. That would affect only Phoenix and Tucson, but an earlier plan for cities of 200,000 would have included Mesa, Chandler and Gilbert. The pushback was so fierce, DiCiccio said, that the population had to be increased for any chance of legislative support.
Unions and government bureaucrats are afraid reform will actually work and force them to change, he said. To illustrate the opposition to change, he almost proudly recalled a recent protest at the state Capitol where union workers in orange shirts stood nearby as he was giving a television interview.
“I heard this one guy yell,’ There he is!’ They had 200 people in orange shirts running after me,” DiCiccio said. “You’ve got natural constituencies that are living off the current system and if you want to (change) it, you’re going to have to go through the beating.”
The globalized economy now forces local governments to push down taxes and fees to attract businesses and jobs, he said.
“Your competitors are no longer Mesa or Scottsdale or Chandler. Our competition is now halfway across the globe,” DiCiccio said.
The Legislature’s push to limit municipal government comes as Republicans gained a supermajority in the House and Senate and the growing voice of the tea party. Lawmakers are considering roughly 200 bills this session that affect cities, double what they reviewed last year, said Chad Heinrich, Tempe’s lobbyist. The unusually large class of freshman lawmakers has emboldened special interests to lobby for more than they normally would, he said. Lawmakers are trying to take power from cities even as municipalities have reformed themselves, he said, noting Tempe cut spending nearly 20 percent in recent years.
A major worry for Tempe is a proposal that makes cities pass or reject permits 60 days after they’re filed — or they’re automatically approved. Tempe is eager to get deals done quickly, he said, but sometimes more time is needed to vet complicated development proposals. Plus the planning staff is half what it was a few years ago.
“By no means do we want to rush things,” Heinrich said. “We want to do it thoughtfully.”
Mesa Mayor Scott Smith said taxpayers across Arizona face hidden burdens as the Legislature and even Congress look to cut spending. The federal government could cut Community Development Block Grants, which he said bring in about $4 million a year to Mesa and include support of men’s shelters and social services. People cut from health insurance and other social services call 911 more often and turn cities into their primary care physician, he said.
He’s frequently criticized the Legislature for laws that inadvertently or purposely put costs on the back of cities.
“I don’t fault them for trying to cut their budgets,” Smith said. “What I do question is when they do cut their budgets without understanding or recognizing the consequences. In many cases, cutting a budget at a higher level does not cut the costs. It simply transfers the cost to the lower level of government.”
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