With less than 10 days remaining for Mesa's mayoral and District 5 runoff, and more than 36,000 early ballots returned as of Friday, Phil Austin and Dina Higgins are in the final innings of their race for a City Council seat.
In the March primary, Austin trailed Higgins by 1,500 votes. He leads Higgins in fundraising efforts, with $5,348 in April to Higgins' $655.
The Tribune asked both candidates about their visions for the district, the future of Mesa and their takes on some key issues facing Mesa in the next few years.
What attributes make you the best candidate for District 5?
Austin: My experience as a former state prosecutor and being tough on crime and knowing how to balance the budget as a government administrator. I have experience in managing multimillion-dollar budgets and I had to create revenue streams and find nooks and crannies to streamline government spending.
Higgins: My people skills, my accessibility and my responsiveness to individuals. Also, my proven community leadership skills. I've had many people call me and I engage people in conversations. My voter-to-voter campaign has been well received. So I plan to continue that type of dialogue if elected.
Three things you would want to see changed or improved in District 5?
Austin: To build more confidence in local government. That's an issue that people constantly raise. There's a perception that government is mismanaging money. We need to show people that the city is using all financial techniques to balance the budget and provide quality services. Ensuring adequate fire and public safety response times and facilities. Also, quality economic development is much needed.
Higgins: We have to make sure that development is compatible with the neighborhoods. The Falcon Field area between Recker and Higley along the Loop 202, parcel 51, those are the big open areas in the district where we need to be careful. I would prioritize economic development and attracting high-paying jobs. Adequate police and fire response times in our spreading district is another area of focus.
As Falcon Field airport gets busier, resident concerns about noise continue. How can the two entities' interests be balanced?
Austin: Falcon Field has a great deal of potential for positive economic growth. The city is keeping open space, but the concern is about low and night flying. So you have to look at those concerns to mitigate noise and work with the businesses and users of the airport to develop noise regulations to accomplish growth and not negatively affect the neighborhood. I propose a proactive approach through town halls to get a sense of issues ahead of prospective development and address those concerns before they reach planning and zoning level meetings.
Higgins: I would like to see a detailed noise and land use study to really see if the residents have a case or whether the airport needs to do things any different. It's hard because Falcon Field is already largely built out. The airport is developed. From what I understand the airport really cannot do anything to restrict noise or airtime landings. Perhaps you could reduce the burden on one neighborhood by looking into takeoff and landing directions.
Do you favor imposing a primary property tax?
Austin: Residents have voiced their opinion strongly and that's not going to pass. The city has to prove it's doing everything it can to balance the budget. Look at what other cities are doing and to use volunteers and nonprofits. To see if we have enough utility and sales tax revenues for what we spend. Then the city can say look we've done all this and here's where we're short to show why a property tax is necessary. Communication is the key.
Higgins: For long-term capital improvements, going for a bond makes more sense than a primary property tax. Until we can show the community we're bare bones in spending, I don't think we could look at primary property tax. I do hear from a lot of people as I campaign that the city needs a primary property tax. A lot of those who say this are older and have come from out of town, where they were used to paying primary property tax. This is all about being open with the community.
Do you favor a secondary property tax as a revenue source for the $408 million bond up for voter approval in November?
Austin: I'm supportive of building new infrastructure but I don't know if it's all necessary, so I'm concerned about that $400 million figure. I told the police and fire chiefs recently that I'll be looking at that and they may have to cut some of that. I'm looking to see what revenues are available to fund these expenditures. Then we have to look at a secondary property tax attenuated to the bond.
Higgins: I know the approval would be for binding up to $408 million but I don't think it's prudent to ask for all. We're all cutting back on our individual spending. Am I going to make an addition to my house and take out anther mortgage or will I just spend on wiring and plumbing issues right now? There are other things that might be nice to have but that's not how you want the community to agree with you. We would have to have a secondary property tax for it, just like a fixed mortgage.
What would you like to see Mesa accomplish as a city in the next five years?
Austin: To make moves to become a premier city. To galvanize citizens, work on public safety, make it an economical viable entity to see people safe and also fulfilled and to have pride in their city. Also, positive economic development that will promote the city for future generations.
Higgins: I'd like Mesa to lead us in solar energy usage. I would like to see us get out of our mentality that 'we don't, we can't, we shouldn't and we don't have the ability.' Highest school graduation rate for a city our size - that should be screamed from the mountaintops. The ability to access Tonto National Forest should be promoted. The downtown area should come alive for us to hang out Friday nights.
Illegal immigration is an ongoing issue. Sheriff Arpaio has said he'll bring his sweeps to Mesa. What's your take on that?
Austin: I'm a former prosecutor so I favor enforcing the law. Different law agencies need to work together. The sheriff needs to cooperate with local agencies to prevent confusion and a contrary result. Limited police resources working together can be effective. But if they don't talk, there could be chaos. We need to aggressively arrest people who are committing crimes, whether legal or illegal. Every policing agency has a different priority established. We just need to cooperate with each other.
Higgins: Arpaio is the county sheriff so he can do what he wants, but he needs to communicate with our chief so our communities are protected. Arpaio could look at his budget to use it more effectively, to do more criminal arrests. To me it looks more like a dog and pony show. I'd like to see more immigration (ICE) officials handling illegal cases. Our state senators should scream for more money to handle our community issues and it shouldn't have to come from our budget. I'm told our police department spent $5 million last year holding illegal immigrants who had a committed a crime until ICE could come pick them up. That bill should go to Washington.
Do you support the council-approved slum landlord ordinance that's up for a vote in November?
Austin: We should have one. The ordinance has an area for voluntary compliance. If not, then the city has to put pressure on property owners so it doesn't fall below safety standards. If not, the city takes stronger measures. Landowners may have questions about what they need to do to come into compliance. We could use volunteer mediators to resolve issues to get more landlords to come into compliance. It's best to use mediation techniques before draconian enforcement measures are implemented.
Higgins: I think it's a good idea. You can get in a situation where you can't afford to be in a better home. This ordinance will help such residents so it's long overdue. Poorly managed rental property also blights the area and brings down property value in the neighborhood. The government is not going to go in uninvited. There will be rules.
What do you feel about revising the way group homes for the handicapped and halfway houses are defined and zoned?
Austin: Federal law puts restrictions on what cities can do regarding zoning and limiting houses that provide services to those, for example, defined as disabled. We have to educate the businesses offering these homes and the neighborhoods to bring consensus. We have to see if the city is restrained from prohibiting such homes in certain areas, then we have to see how can we work together to ameliorate any negative impact. It's going to take a lot of work from the City Council and neighbors and businesses to work together.
Higgins: I think it's fair to look into this. I've had experience when I taught at a school on Stapley and Brown where there was a rehabilitation home across the street. The people from this home would wander on school property at lunchtime. I found out that the owner of the halfway home wasn't following the rules. You don't want to kick people out, but you also have to think of the neighboring community's concerns. As long as it doesn't affect the commercial area either, it should work. People don't want to shop next to a halfway house. There's problem around it. I think there's a big difference between people coming out of rehab and truly infirmed residents. So it would depend on what kind of transition we're talking about. Some neighborhoods do get affected by it, so it needs to be looked into.