Local governments turn to citizens groups for budget solutions - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Local governments turn to citizens groups for budget solutions

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Posted: Thursday, March 17, 2011 4:02 pm | Updated: 5:43 pm, Fri Sep 16, 2011.

Faced with difficult budget decisions, some governmental bodies in the East Valley are looking for dollars-and-cents input from the public.

By forming the citizens groups, town/city councils and school boards aim to inform the public on the gravity of their budget situations, while learning which services residents prioritize most.

And maybe, someone has a bright idea.

“We could hear something we haven’t thought of,” Queen Creek Mayor Gail Barney said. “We’ve been racking our brains for a while on this, and somebody might come in with an idea that is smoking.

“It’s their money. We have to do something.”

Queen Creek has begun soliciting input on how to address its anticipated $5 million budget shortfall for the upcoming fiscal year. Barney said that number could be lower — as a result of its population increase, the town is expected to receive more shared revenue from the state — but Barney said he will not know for sure until the Legislature finishes its budget process.

“We made some of the easier decisions, and we’d like our citizens to help us set some priorities, to determine what is important,” Barney said. “If the citizens decide they don’t want the parks cleaned as often or grass mowed as often, we can cut some staffing on that. That will save money, but I’m not sure if that’s what the town wants. …

“Or, if they want to pay more in taxes, we can do that. We’re not in favor of raising taxes if we don’t have to.”

The Mesa Unified School District is in limbo as it waits on the Legislature’s education-funding decisions.

State cuts are expected — the Senate on Wednesday passed a package that slashes $242 million from K-12 — which makes the district’s budget trimming of $40 million to $60 million for the next school year even more of a headache. As a result, the district formed a 60-member public task force to help brainstorm.

Beth Coons of Mesa is part of the task force.

“It’s as grave as I’ve ever seen,” said Coons, a Mesa Unified School District board member from 1992-2000. “I don’t think anything compares to what the district is facing now.”

The Gilbert Town Council must deal with a $6 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year. Town officials initially projected a shortfall of at least $10 million, but retail sales in Gilbert are up, and the construction slowdown has not hit the town as severely as others.

A 35-member “citizens think tank” has provided input to Town Council and staff.

“We had an introductory meeting, then another meeting for the nitty-gritty,” Town Manager Collin DeWitt said. “What we were after is from the citizens’ perspective, what issues they see as absolutes — what are most important.

“We wanted a high-level discussion, and we got a lot of that. It was a success, because as government officials and staff, we seldom hear what the populace thinks on budget matters. This has given us an opportunity.”

Last year, Gilbert voters rejected Proposition 406, a sales-tax increase that town officials indicated was vital to maintaining such services as police and fire. The town’s 2010-11 budget was balanced with no significant layoffs or cuts, and some officials said that they could have conveyed the financial situation better, minus scare tactics.

“The communication is something we have to do every day, and we’ve committed to doing a better job,” DeWitt said. “To have the discourse and discussion back and forth (with the think tanks) is important to us. If it didn’t sound right to them, maybe we were out of sync. To have that confirmation that what we were doing is reasonable was good, and it was good for our people to have an education on the budget process.”

Officials were elected to make tough decisions, so a cynic could insists that the councils and boards are punting.

Coons countered by saying that the premise is simple — cuts will be made, and the public can have a say or not.

“The board will still have to make the hard decisions,” Coons said. “It’s not a punt. It’s to take input, as opposed to taking a budget and ramming it through as quickly as possible. It’s smart to listen to the citizens.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-6301 or dzeiger@evtrib.com

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