In just 10 days, Mesa residents will finish voting on two of the most critical issues to confront our community in decades — proposals to raise the city sales tax and to impose the first property tax since 1945.
As election day approaches, opponents of these measures are raising new objections while recycling older ones that appeal to our fears and mistrust of government, but ignore the reality of Mesa’s eroding financial health. We address some of the arguments today so voters can make a truly informed choice about Mesa’s future.
Objection: Mesa tax revenues have grown consistently over the past 20 years, so the city doesn’t really need new taxes.
Reality: The city budget has failed to keep pace with demands for more streets, public safety facilities, parks and other services as Mesa has expanded to the east.
The higher revenues also reflect higher utility rates, a portion of which have been diverted to the city General Fund for programs not related to electric, garbage and water utilities. This highlights the fundamental imbalance in the city budget, as the diversion has prevented Mesa from pursuing needed maintenance of utility infrastructure.
The city has lost $51 million in programs and positions since 2001. These cuts have had a real effect with the elimination of the police gang unit, the “clean sweep” neighborhood trash removal program, and downtown parades and cultural events. They also include reduced hours at city swimming pools and two libraries.
Objection: Mesa can save $25 million without further cuts to basic programs. Start with controversial items such as light rail and stability pay, and sell off the rest of the Pinal County water farm.
Reality: Critics want to pretend that canceling multi-million dollar contracts and abandoning legal obligations would have no consequences for taxpayers. The City Council and staff have explored many options repeatedly touted by opponents, but recognized such steps would only dig deeper into the financial hole.
Besides, all of these proposals are Band-aids for a problem that cries out for a long–term solution. If voters reject one or both tax proposals, the city should focus on further reducing programs and personnel to permanently shrink spending.
Objection: The City Council doesn’t make wise spending decisions, so we shouldn’t give it even more money to waste.
Reality: Anyone can question individual programs or council votes that conflict with one’s own view of the proper role of government. We argued loudly against the light-rail system, for example.
But no Mesa resident can look at cities of similar size in Arizona and other states and honestly say this City Hall is somehow more frivolous with our tax money. In fact, independent research has shown Mesa to be one of the most cost-effective cities in the country.
Objection: Grudgingly accept the sales tax increase, but reject the property tax as an unreasonable intrusion on home ownership.
Reality: Property taxes are way of a life for funding local governments everywhere. Every Mesa homeowner already pays property taxes to the school district and the county, and that won’t change regardless of the outcome in the May 16 election.
The City Council has done everything possible to control the cost of the primary property tax proposal while requiring new developments to pay their fair share. The city would have to live with revenue increases of only 2 percent a year, limiting the impact of higher valuation notices from the county assessor.
And voters will decide separately whether to assess a secondary property tax at a future bond election, possibly in November. Under state law, the council already could have imposed a secondary property tax to start repaying existing bonds, but wisely chose not to.