As the Mesa City Council faces its biggest ever fiscal crisis, the choice before it has become crystal clear: It can ask voters to approve a permanent fix, or it can ask voters to approve a stop-gap fix.
It is also clear that the politically expedient thing to do is opt for the stopgap, which includes a sales-tax hike in May and the prospect of future bond elections that would trigger secondary property taxes.
The politically more risky option is to ask voters for both the sales-tax increase and to create a primary property tax that would help absorb the city’s looming operating deficit and quite likely preclude future secondary property taxes.
Let’s also be clear about what’s at stake for Mesa residents — and it goes far beyond the political careers of a handful of officials. What is at stake is the quality of life in a city that has managed to keep taxes low while also providing a high level of basic municipal services including public safety and sanitation, as well as cultural amenities that run the gamut from youth recreation to libraries to arts programs.
Although Mesa has long harbored a political fringe that insists any government beyond police and fire protection is too much government, it is a safe bet that most residents both appreciate the quality and quantity of municipal services but also that they come with a price tag.
The City Council should let residents make the critical call here between long-term and stop-gap. That means a hesitant mayor and council should swallow hard to do what only one among them, Councilman Mike Whalen, has had the guts to advocate: Put the primary property tax on the May ballot.
While we fully understand that Councilwoman Janie Thom and Councilman Tom Rawles are ideologically opposed to the primary property tax, Mayor Keno Hawker, Vice Mayor Claudia Walters and Councilmen Rex Griswold and Kyle Jones have favorably impressed us as being less rigidly ideological and hence more amendable to workable solutions to municipal challenges.
They should be helped in their decision by the Mesa Chamber of Commerce, which strongly supports both the sales-tax increase and the primary property tax as essential to maintaining the city quality of life, which has a direct bearing on the city’s economic future. (See Chamber President Charlie Deaton’s East Valley Voice on the following page.) Put bluntly, a threadbare city is not an attractive place to sink investment capital.
A recent poll shows far less support for the property tax than for the sales tax, so civic leaders would have a big job educating voters. But they should at least give voters enough credit to leave this crucial decision to them. If voters ultimately approve only the sales-tax increase, the fall-back will be what most council members seem inclined to favor now, anyway — funding the city from bond issue to bond issue.
The Mesa City Council should put both tax measures on the May ballot, and clearly and forcefully make the case for their passage. Then let the voters decide what kind of city they want Mesa to be.