The Gilbert Town Council voted late Tuesday night to put a quarter-cent sales tax for public safety to a public vote at a May 18 special election.
The 4-3 vote mirrored the sentiments the council voiced at a special budget meeting on Saturday, with Vice Mayor Linda Abbott and council members John Sentz, Les Presmyk and Dave Crozier voting to hold the election and Mayor John Lewis voting with council members Steve Urie and Jenn Daniels against an election.
Ten residents spoke at a public hearing about having an election; five for holding it, four against, and one noncommittal. Resident sentiment has fluctuated at public hearings since the council first adopted, then rescinded, the sales tax hike last year.
The increase was withdrawn after opponents collected about 2,500 signatures on referendum petitions on that change, a use tax and a lifting of a sales tax exemption on small scale residential landlords.
"Clearly we are at a fork in the road, and clearly the council is representative of the community at large," Abbott said.
Urie, who chaired the steering committee of the Citizens Budget Committee, which worked through the fall to come up with ways to balance the town budget, said he wanted the council to spend more time on those proposals and hold a vote later if needed.
"I am concerned we haven't given the ideas time to mature," he said. The steering committee didn't endorse a sales tax increase but three of the seven subcommittees did.
After the vote, Presmyk left the door open to not holding a vote, if a campaign to cut 15 percent from all department budgets succeeds in coming up with enough palatable budget reductions in the next month or so: "We'll stop the election because we do have some time."
Holding the election is expected to cost up to $250,000.
The council is trying to close a projected spending shortfall of $14 million over the next several years. The expected deficit for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1, grew to more than $15 million in an updated financial report from town officials.
On Tuesday Town Manager George Pettit told the council that the $7.3 million estimate officials have given for the value of the quarter-cent increase is off by about $700,000 because the state Legislature has adopted a two-year statewide freeze on all construction sales tax rate increases.
Pettit said the bill was passed by the Legislature in September, which drew a rebuke from Sentz. "Gosh it'd be nice to see the big picture," he said.
Resident Eddie Cook said holding the election would be too expensive for a town in a budget crunch.
"Have courage to vote on things that are unpopular," he said. "It's a very bipolar subject and I ask you to do the job you were elected to do."
Tim Rinesmith, who sits on two town advisory committees, took a different tack as he addressed the council. "It's not just your responsibility to solve this," he said. "We elected you to make all the higher decisions, but we're still here to help out."