The Gilbert Town Council got down to business Tuesday night, agreeing to $11.38 million in spending cuts and fee increases for the next fiscal year while reviewing recommendations from the Citizens Budget Committee.
More than half of the money, about $6 million, would come from a 5 percent cost reduction across all departments to be determined by town staff. It’s a move that might eliminate the need for the salary cuts and furloughs proposed by the committee and opposed at a recent meeting by employees and some residents.
The council discussion took up nearly all of a six-hour meeting that ended at 1 a.m. Wednesday. Members slogged their way through many of the 35 recommendations of the 50-plus member budget committee, formed to determine ways to close the $14 million shortfall projected for the town’s general fund for the 2009-10 fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The votes taken Tuesday night, pending final budget approval, could lead to at least one layoff, that of a security guard at the Southeast Regional Library. Officials said the job is a holdover from when the library was first opened by the Maricopa County Regional Library District.
The council did vote to continue to give a $50,000 grant to the Gilbert Historical Museum for at least the next two years, despite a committee recommendation to cut that figure by 25 percent. The Gilbert Historical Society uses most of the money to pay for the museum’s only paid staff member, executive director Kayla Kolar.
Town Councilwoman Jenn Daniels, who was elected earlier this year on a platform of fiscal conservatism, led the charge for supporting the museum, stressing the importance for all age groups to understand history.
“I would say $50,000 for a museum that’s open five days a week is a bargain,” Daniels said. This fall the museum was able, with the help of volunteers, to expand to five days a week.
The council voted 7-0 in favor of maintaining the funding level for two years, even though the town and museum are nearing the end of a five-year contract after which it was hoped the museum would be self-sufficient.
Several council members urged the historical society to come up with a plan to cover its operating costs.
“If you don’t have that goal written down somewhere, you’ll never get there,” Councilman Dave Crozier said.
The council worked its way through the measures that won the endorsement of the steering committee of the Citizens Budget Committee. The recommendations do not include the most controversial item, a quarter-cent sales tax similar to one adopted, then rescinded, by the council earlier this year after it faced a referendum effort.
Seeking voter approval for a sales tax increase was recommended by three of the seven subcommittees. On preference sheets filled out by the council prior to Tuesday’s meeting, two members indicated they were against the sales tax hike and five said they would like further discussion about it.
Town Manager George Pettit told the council it would have to decide to call a special election by mid-January in order to hold one in May and be able to collect the additional revenue next fiscal year if the tax were approved. The next council meeting is set for Jan. 5.
The initial votes made Tuesday night could add up to more than three-quarters of the general fund gap expected next year, but officials are projecting continued weakness in the economy, and state-shared revenues will affect the budget for several years to come.
Other recommendations the council will have to tackle at its next meeting include:
• Seeking voter approval or adopting a use tax, expected to raise about $3 million that would come mostly from Salt River Project customers paying the tax for fuel used at Gilbert’s Santan Generating Station.
• Spending $1 million in order to build a 10th fire station using $3 million in federal stimulus grants. Officials say building this station will force the relocation of station No. 7, which also serves northwest Gilbert. A temporary station could reduce this cost.
• A 5 percent reduction in employee medical plan costs.
• Reducing funding to outside social service agencies, including the Boys and Girls Club, by 25 percent.
• Reassigning school resource police officers if school districts are unable to pay for their salaries.
• Freezing all vacant town positions.
• Moving elections to a fall cycle.
• Recovering costs for police department counseling services provided to defendants and victims.