There’s the well-funded and highly active “Yes for Mesa” campaign. And then there’s the much smaller “No” campaign.
But perhaps the most effective campaign effort of all centers on Mesa itself as it tries to educate voters about what would or wouldn’t happen if the tax measures fail. The city, because of financial problems, has promised to eliminate or reduce a handful of services if it doesn’t raise more revenue next year.
Already, city officials have given residents a preview of what that might look like.
Since the City Council voted in December to ask voters to approve a property tax and a sales tax increase, Mesa has canceled community festivals, reduced library hours, closed two branch libraries on Sundays, hosted six town hall meetings to discuss a looming budget shortfall and let a cityfunded arts group promote the two tax measures to its event attendees.
It has also distributed mailers that some residents consider propaganda in favor of voting “yes” on the taxes. The city stands to gain up to $30 million a year if the property tax passes and millions more if the sales tax hike is approved.
Residents have filed formal complaints, saying they’re concerned Mesa officials have crossed into a gray area between educating residents about the election and attempting to persuade them to vote for the taxes.
So far, there is no indication the city has violated any laws. The law is clear about the city having the right to answer questions and provide financial information to voters who will decide next month whether to implement the first city property tax in 61 years.
And the City Council, as a political body, has every right to reduce library hours or cancel a city festival, regardless of whether there is an upcoming election.
City officials say they want to inform residents, not tell people how they should vote.
“In many respects, we’re the information source, and people look to us to tell them this information,” said Bryan Raines, Mesa financial services manager.
Vice Mayor Claudia Walters, who supports the property tax, said if the city were not answering budget questions there would be criticism that Mesa was not being forthright with the voters.
“It seems to me that what these folks (who have filed complaints) are saying is the facts are an argument in favor of voting ‘yes.’ ”
But the issue, critics say, is not whether the city has a right to provide information, but instead whether it has a right to “spin” the phrasing to influence residents’ views.
For example, in its Q and A, Mesa asks “If the city did not build the Mesa Arts Center, would this have reduced the budget shortfall?” Mesa’s answer was “No.”
Although it’s true that the center was paid for by the “quality-of-life” sales tax and not the General Fund, it’s also true that there would be at least $4.7 million per year available for other “quality-of-life” issues such as police, fire and libraries. That money would offset some of the city’s projected $25 million shortfall.
Another question, “What caused the projected shortfall?” explains that sales tax and utility revenue have not kept pace with inflation and costs associated with population growth. But that answer implies the city has not spent any discretionary money in the meantime.
Not all officials agree the city has had no control over its financial situation and is just responding to outside factors. There is no mention, for instance, that Mesa has bond payments due and that leaders never secured a way to repay them.
“It’s clearly being done, in my view, with the hope and intent of influencing people to vote ‘yes,’ ” said Mesa Councilman Tom Rawles, who opposes the tax. “It doesn’t blatantly urge someone to vote, but the whole process of their educational campaign is one-sided. They are educating, but they are educating for a reason.”
Information provided by the city is being used by the official Yes for Mesa campaign, which capitalized on the council’s decision to reduce library hours by holding a protax rally last week in front of the Dobson Ranch Branch Library.
Paul Bentz, a spokesman for the Yes for Mesa campaign, said: “We do not ask the city to do anything or impact anything. We simply use the facts that are out there to draw people’s attention.”
Marilynn Wennerstrom, a longtime Mesa political observer and activist, was one of four people filing complaints over the city’s tactics. She said it’s clearly an orchestrated effort by the city to encourage voters to tax themselves.
“They are technically clever, saying it’s just education,” she said. “But excuse me, this is across the board.”
Arizona law states: “A city or town shall not use its personnel, equipment, materials, buildings or other resources for the purpose of influencing the outcomes of elections.”
But trying to fight the city with complaints is basically a worthless attempt, because the penalty is essentially a slap on the wrist and a stern warning not to do it again.
Bill FitzGerald, a Maricopa County Attorney’s Office spokesman, said there’s no public agency to enforce the statute, and no civil penalty applies, even if there was enforcement.
“The applicable statute remains toothless,” FitzGerald said.
Mesa has kicked off an effort to educate voters about a looming budget shortfall and the need to eliminate or reduce city services if two tax measures fail to pass in the May 16 election. City actions so far include:
• Canceling 2006 city festivals
• Reducing library hours
• Closing two branch libraries on
• Mailing newsletters listing upcoming budget reductions
• Posting information on the city’s Web site about the proposed cuts
• City attorney ruling Southwest Shakespeare Co. can promote property tax at
Mesa Arts Center