Scottsdale’s McDowell Sonoran Preserve, as has been said many times in this space, is the city’s crown jewel, a marvelous plan for perpetual preservation of land to help create what many believe would be the largest such preserve in any U.S. city.
We do not dispute the need to preserve as much of this land as possible. As Scottsdale land values will only rise, in order for the preserve to be completed the sooner such land is purchased, the better.
We cannot, however, support higher sales taxes as the funding source the City Council has asked voters to approve May 18 in Questions 1 and 2 and thus recommend a NO vote to both.
To raise Scottsdale’s sales tax rate, even for such a noble purpose as adding to the preserve, is fiscally unwise because of such taxes’ cyclical nature. It does not recognize at all the unfair property-value advantage the preserve provides those who live nearest to it. And, most regrettably, it represents an unjustified reluctance by members of the Scottsdale City Council, who passed to voters a responsibility that should be theirs.
• Reliance on sales taxes is fiscally unwise. The 1990s boom from which the city received repeated annual double-digit increases in sales-tax revenue no longer exists; such a cash cow likely will never return. Three straight years of sluggish tourism activity in Scottsdale, combined with other economic factors, are harbingers of far more conservative fiscal outlooks by the city’s own prognosticators.
To rely on sales taxes for the preserve is too much of a roll of the dice. As it is, Questions 1 and 2’s proponents estimate that $500 million is needed to buy all earmarked preserve land. The proposed 0.15-percent sales-tax increase, however, by their own estimates, will produce significantly less than that. More sales tax hikes are likely to loom after May 18, even if the two measures are approved that day.
• The preserve’s closest neighbors benefit more from it. On Wednesday, Scottsdale Community College President Art DeCabooter, a supporter of the ballot questions, argued on the Opinion 2 page that a higher sales tax would be "paid by everyone who benefits, including tourists and visitors who are drawn to the city by its beauty and diverse amenities. A property tax hike, by contrast, would unfairly burden Scottsdale homeowners while exempting a large population of beneficiaries from any costs."
What DeCabooter did not mention was that for years there has already existed a sales tax for the preserve paid by "everyone," by tourists, by visitors — but mostly by residents, Starting in 1995, Scottsdale sales tax increases already had been approved by voters to buy preserve land. Whether Questions 1 and 2 pass or not, "everyone" will continue to pay these taxes, with none of the large-scale exemptions DeCabooter contemplates.
Property tax rates, however, need not be increased to raise more money for the preserve. Rising land values — they have done so regardless of the economy — indicate more property-tax revenue at current rates is likely. Better management of such revenue can buy more land. Those living nearest the preserve, because they live closest to its breathtaking vistas have the highest-valued property in the city. Thus their higher total property taxes would be justified for the value they receive.
• The City Council timidly chose to avoid dealing with this issue itself. Relying on the popularity of the preserve, the council’s vote to put these taxes on the May ballot gambles on the felicity of voters to pile on a new hike to previous sales tax increases they previously have supported.
Again, however, this is no longer the plenty-of-money-for-everybody ’90s. Fiscal restraint is on many more Scottsdale taxpayers’ minds, particularly as they look ahead toward November’s public votes to levy $1.3 billion in countywide taxes to fund transportation and sell and repay $204 million in bonds to refurbish the Scottsdale Unified School District’s sagging high schools.
The council spent little if any effort investigating potential partnerships with private conservation organizations to raise money privately for the preserve. It gave only brief public ear to property-tax alternatives before passing the issue on to the voters.
The voters should therefore respond clearly and convincingly that while the preserve is a top priority, it cannot be funded unwisely, inequitably and irresponsibly. These are what Questions 1 and 2 are about, however, and that is why voters should vote NO on both of them May 18.