Gilbert voters on May 18 will be asked to approve Proposition 406, a quarter cent permanent sales tax increase for public safety services.
If approved, the tax is expected to raise $5.1 million in its first year, and would bring the town’s sales tax rate to 1.75 percent starting in July.
Supporters say the levy is needed to help a growing community experiencing a decrease in revenue and expenditures. Without the extra money, they say police and fire services will suffer, and the community may not be as safe.
Opponents counter more can be done to find money in the town’s coffers and they argue this is not the time to ask voters to approve a tax increase. They say money can be pulled from savings funds to help balance the budget.
The council twice voted on the tax increase, first adopting it outright last June, then rescinding it after a referendum petition drive began that would have likely forced a public vote. In January, the council voted to put the question to voters in May.
Vice Mayor Linda Abbott, one of four council members who voted to send the tax to the ballot, said she realizes a tax increase is not popular position for a politician. But, she said, it is an easier political decision to deflect the decision and put people at risk.
“From the beginning, I have stated a vote to determine the level of service our citizens wish to have is proper. And it is appropriate to allow our residents to give us direction as to the investment they are willing to make to keep our community one of the safest in the United States,” Abbott said.
Several cost-saving measures were recently identified, including a voluntary 3 percent pay cut in wages and benefits for all town employees beginning in July, postponing capital projects, fee increases for recreational programs and some services, and shifting money from various non-general fund town accounts. The measures equal $9 million in savings, which will bring Gilbert’s estimated budget shortfall down to $6 million for the upcoming fiscal year.
Erin Scroggins, who is a member of the political action committee Families for Responsible Government: No on 406, said the tax is not needed. Scroggins said there is enough money in various funds to fix the budget, and he doesn’t even believe the town will see a deficit.
“I don’t believe (police and fire) response times will go up,” said Scroggins, a Gilbert resident for 11 years who ran unsuccessfully for a council seat. “They’re really not even telling us the truth when it comes to the public safety funding. We’re just trying to get the truth out there so citizens can get informed on what their vote actually means.”
Councilwoman Jenn Daniels, who voted against putting the proposition on the ballot, along with Mayor John Lewis, said there is money available in the contingency fund, a town savings fund. And she doesn’t believe Gilbert is doing enough to find the money to fix the budget.
“I’m willing to work for other options, but I’m really not sure why there’s a philosophical difference (on the council),” she said.
Councilman John Sentz, who supports the tax increase, said it is a long-term solution. He worries also that if the state’s one-cent sales tax isn’t approved during the same election, the town will be forced to cut even more.
“If we keep dipping into what I’m going to call a savings account, how long can you do that without getting into trouble?” asked Sentz, a retired Motorola project manager who had budget experience at his former job.
“I think we were elected to be a little bit more strategic,” he said. “How many years can we do this (pull money from contingency funds) if we’re in dire financial straits? If they (the tax increase opponents) prevail, it will hurt the town. Their position is not sustainable... I don’t want to pay more taxes than anyone else. To me, the tax sounds like a good investment.”