Fewer than four in 10 Mesa voters are willing to pay a city property tax, but poll numbers released Wednesday suggest more than six in 10 are open to a bond issue or a sales tax increase.
Mesa voters have approved bond packages and sales tax increases in the past, but the Mesa Chamber of Commerce survey shows only 38.6 percent of voters support a property tax. Mesa homeowners have not paid a city property tax in 60 years.
"If the numbers are that low, in my experience, that’s a tough win," Mesa City Councilman Mike Whalen said. "We may have to look at Plan B, C or D. But I don’t know what that is."
The privately funded poll concluded that about 63 percent of voters would support a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation and general government services, and 61 percent would favor a $480 million bond issue for "basic infrastructure." About 7 percent to 12 percent of survey participants said they were undecided on one or more of the three ballot questions.
The Mesa City Council is considering placing a primary property tax and sales tax increase measure on the May 16 ballot, and a $584 million bond proposal on either the May or November 2006 ballot. Final decisions have not been made, but last month a City Council majority agreed during its annual retreat that the property and sales tax issues must go to the voters or else Mesa will face $36 million in budget cuts that could close libraries, museums and pools.
Chamber president Charlie Deaton said the poll results will likely be presented to the City Council next week.
"We will recommend they get busy in some sort of education program to at least make the public understand what the issues are and what the concerns might be," Deaton said.
Deaton said the poll demonstrated that many Mesa residents do not
understand the city’s finances. About 25 percent of survey participants, for example, said they thought the city already levied a property tax.
Mesa residents do pay property taxes to fund school districts and Maricopa County government, but not for city operations. Deaton also noted that only about a third of voters realized Mesa was facing financial problems.
The poll was taken among 600 Mesa residents who voted in the May Riverview election, the November 2004 general election, or both. The poll was conducted between Oct. 3 and 14 by Tucsonbased Margaret Kenski of Arizona Opinion, which conducted polling for Riverview supporters earlier this year. Margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Kenski said poll participants were asked the three trial ballot questions twice. The first was without presenting a case for or against the measures; the second after running through a list of the expected arguments for or against the proposals. Kenski said the property tax and sales tax results remained fairly constant, while sentiment favoring the bond proposal increased 7 percent from the first to the second phase of the survey.
"One thing I like about this style is it sort of replicates what people hear in a campaign," Kenski said.
For the positive arguments, Kenski said residents were told Mesa is the 40th largest city in the county, has a long history of supporting bonds, needs more sales tax revenue to receive Proposition 400 matching funds for transportation projects, is facing a budget deficit and its taxes are relatively low compared to other Valley cities.
For the negative arguments, poll-takers were told Mesa is on a tax-and-spend binge, wasted money from the 1998 "quality-of-life" sales tax on projects such as the Mesa Arts Center, was able to give a tax break to the Mesa Riverview developers and owns about $300 million worth of land in Pinal County.
Eric Jackson said before serving on the Mesa 2025: Financing the Future committee, he strongly opposed a property tax. But after studying the issues for 19 months, Jackson said he recognized the need and benefits of a property tax. The Chamber of Commerce board member, who just finished serving as chairman of the citizen bond committee, said the same education must begin with the public.
"That’s kind of encouraging that this early on 38 percent would support a property tax," Jackson said.
The Mesa Chamber of Commerce received private donations to conduct the poll. Deaton would not release the names of those contributors.