Big spenders abound in government halls across the East Valley, according to a government watchdog group that analyzed the spending habits of county and municipal officials.
Arizona Federation of Taxpayers executives crunched the numbers for 87 government bodies and 563 elected officials statewide. Then they assigned one of 11 possible grades to each government official, ranging from “hero of the taxpayer” to “hero of big government.”
The federation’s executives discovered local elected officials are quit cavalier about spending their constituents’ money.
They didn’t come across a single elected official worthy of the top ranking and only three frugal enough for the next-best ranking, champion of the taxpayers.
In contrast, the foundation’s executives crowned 90 elected officials, or 16 percent, in the bottom two categories, champion of big government and hero of big government.
“A lot of these city councils have been entirely under the impression that nobody is watching, that there’s no spending limits.” said Tom Jenny, executive director of the foundation.
The foundation’s first county and municipal scorecard produced some unexpected results.
For example, most of Mesa’s council members were christened as friends of big government. At the same time, all of Scottsdale’s council members were named either ally of the taxpayer or friend of the taxpayer.
Mesa Mayor Keno Hawker said the foundation’s analysts need to attend a few Mesa City Council meetings, because their conclusions are seriously flawed.
“I am not a friend of big government. In fact, I have always been a proponent of limiting the growth of government to population and inflation, because I always thought that made sense from a budget standpoint, but I’ve never been able to carry enough votes for it,” Hawker said.
Scottsdale Mayor Mary Manross said the scorecard validates the Scottsdale council’s careful attention to budget matters.
Scottsdale officials use several criteria when developing budgets, she said. Among them: the foundation’s factors of population growth, inflation and personal-income growth; plus the city’s current infrastructure maintenance obligations, future capitol construction costs, and public opinion.
“Just concentrating on population growth and inflation isn’t adequate. You cannot meet the needs of a growing community, especially a strong, successful, king of a forward-thinking one like Scottsdale, concentrating on just those two criteria,” Manross said last week.
The federation’s rankings of Tempe’s elected officials ranged from “not bad” to “friend of big government.”
Tempe Mayor Hugh Hallman said, “It speaks to the diversity of the people in our community and on our council.”
The results could have been worse.
Twenty-five county and municipal governments failed to post their annual budgets or other routine public records on their Web sites, making it impossible for the federation to grade 165 elected officials, or 29 percent of the field.
Furthermore, 11 officials, or 2 percent, were absent for all their key taxpayer votes, and as a result weren’t graded.
The scoring was based on elected officials’ voting records regarding government budgets, sales taxes and property taxes. Officials were rewarded on the scorecard for voting to cut spending or taxes; or for keeping spending and tax increases in line with population growth and inflation, or at a minimum, for holding increases to personal income growth.
Foundation executives used statewide figures to base the combined population growth and inflation figure at 5 percent; and the personal income-growth amount to 7 percent.
The scorecard has a few shortcomings, Jenney said.
First, analysts compared each government’s 2007-08 budget and tax policies to its 2006-07 budget and tax figures. So, councils or boards that made moderate increases to previously bloated budgets or excessive tax rates escaped detection for their previous spending binges.
A truer picture will emerge after several years of tracking, Jenney said.
Second, analysts had no means to objectively score the impact of local government “boondoggles,” such as over-priced arts centers or new extravagant City Halls, because even excessive expenditures are camouflaged by much larger overall city budgets, he said.
Similarly, the impact of “corporate welfare” handouts and tax abatements awarded to business owners and developers are hidden within multi-million-dollar municipal budgets.
The foundation has issued a similar scorecard for state legislators for 22 years.
“One of the reasons we’re really excited to do this report card for local governments is to try to put some of the same pressures on local governments that we put on the Legislature, to at least let them know that a taxpayer group is actually out there watching what they’re doing,” Jenney said.
Legislative office-seekers frequently use the foundation’s scorecards as a wedge issue to tout their own fiscal restraint or to criticize their opponents’ free-spending ways.
The municipal scorecard has the same potential to influence city council races, said Nathan Sproul, president of Sproul & Associates, a Tempe-based political consulting firm.
“Everybody in the primaries, on the Republican side at least, wants to viewed as fiscally conservative, so to the extent that a candidate can label his opponent as not being a good guardian of taxpayer money, that can be a difficult charge to overcome,” Sproul said.