A politically powerful group of business owners that helped block passage of the Mesa property tax has a new mission to give voters a say on utility rate hikes.
Valley Business Owners (and Concerned Citizens) is supporting a ballot initiative that would change the City Charter to allow voters to control utility rate increases. Because Mesa owns its own utilities, it is up to the City Council every year to determine if a rate hike is necessary.
On Friday, a political action committee known as Stop Exploiting Taxpayers filed 6,162 signatures with the City Clerk’s Office in an attempt to get the utility rate question on the ballot. The signatures still need to be verified by the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, said City Clerk Barbara Jones.
“It’s a back-door tax, and it’s one the public is not allowed to vote on,” said Jan Hibbard, chairwoman of Stop Exploiting Taxpayers and secretary/treasurer of Valley Business Owners.
“It’s the same as a sales tax. It’s the same as a property tax.”
The filing comes only a few days before the council is slated to vote on a utility rate increase for the coming fiscal year.
The city is proposing a 5 percent hike on wastewater, natural gas and solid waste as well as a 6.6 percent increase on water.
To get an initiative on the ballot, a total of 4,892 verifiable signatures, or 15 percent of the total votes cast for mayor in the previous election, are needed, Jones said. Signatures must be filed no less than four months prior to the next election, she added.
A ballot initiative allows voters to create new city laws.
Valley Business Owners is a nonprofit organization that says it promotes truth in government and economic well-being.
Stop Exploiting Taxpayers formed two years ago with the aim of putting utility rate increases in the voters’ hands.
It is a separate entity from Valley Business Owners, but has some of the same leadership, Hibbard said.
Unlike investor-owned utilities, public-owned utility companies like Mesa’s are not required to get approval from the Arizona Corporation Commission to raise their rates, said David Plumb, utilities manager for Mesa.
Instead, the City Council decides the rates. Because the city’s utilities are one of Mesa’s primary forms of revenue, rate increases are often used to plug budget gaps, Plumb said.
If people don’t like the rate increases, they vote politicians out of office.
“That’s the whole idea of representative government,” Plumb said. “You elect the City Council to make decisions for the city.”
This bothers some members of the Valley Business Owners, who say there should be more checks and balances.
“Utilities in essence are being pumped up for profits in order to balance the budget. But we take the position that that’s not necessary if you basically curb your spending,” said David Molina, president of Valley Business Owners.
Stop Exploiting Taxpayers actually filed the initiative application two years ago, but turned in the signatures Friday in hopes to get the question on the ballot for the next city election. The next city election is scheduled for March 2008, Jones said. She added there is pending state legislation that would require Mesa to push its election into the fall.