Town leaders and members of the Gilbert Chamber of Commerce sharply disagreed over taxes Tuesday night during a lively forum addressing the business community’s concerns and public policy priorities for the year.
The liveliest part of a two-hour meeting, which ranged from general plan and zoning issues to the long and opaque approval processes for new businesses, pertained to the town’s planned quarter-cent sales tax hike from 1.5 percent to 1.75 percent.
Jonathan Olson, the chamber’s chairman of public policy, argued the council should look for deeper cuts before considering increases, adding that some businesses are barely surviving.
“We know how difficult it is to manage budgets in times like these,” he said.
Councilman Steve Urie asked: “Is there ever a good time to raise taxes?”
Urie later asked the room if there was any business present that hadn’t raised its costs in the last nine years.
“Quite frankly Gilbert is the low price competitor,” he said referring to the town’s tax rate compared to other municipalities in the Valley. “No one is lower than us.”
The forum was part of the chamber’s Good Government Series during which the group discusses concerns and policy priorities with lawmakers on an annual or biennial basis. Tribune publisher Julie Moreno was among the chamber’s board members who attended the forum.
The tax, expected to raise $7.3 million dollars a year, was preliminarily approved by the council June 2 to help close a budget shortfall.
A proposed use tax is also on the table affecting goods and services purchased outside of town, particularly utilities.
Russell Smoldon, the meeting moderator from Salt River Project, which sponsored the dinner and forum, said he wanted to go on record saying SRP doesn’t incur any added costs from a use tax. The town currently does not have a use tax.
“We’re just going to collect this from our customers, so it’s just one more cost on your citizens,” he said.
Kathy Langdon, the chamber’s president and CEO, later said Urie seemed to imply the town hasn’t raised costs in recent years while businesses have.
But Langdon pointed out that the town collects more in fees every year as property values rise.
“The reality is they have kept the property tax rate consistent,” she said. “But if you look at the actual cost to their customers — which is residents and businesses — as the assessed valuation increased, the costs increased.”
Langdon said the increase is about 6 percent a year on things like water rates.
“We haven’t disputed those and the reason we haven’t disputed those is because we understand the cost of (Gilbert’s) goods and services has increased.
Chamber officials and lawmakers also covered the preservation and expansion of areas dedicated to commercial and industrial uses, which the chamber said is essential to attracting new businesses, creating jobs and ensuring fiscal stability. Other topics concerned the importance of regional partnerships, namely the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, transportation issues and improvements to the Heritage District.