The final days of this year's Gilbert Town Council race are playing out in the shadows of a huge pile of already-returned early ballots, looming budget cuts and a hotly debated sales-tax hike proposal.
"As of Friday we have 12,000 early ballots in, so overall, the state of progress is, we're closing in on pretty much the final rounds," said incumbent Town Councilwoman Joan Krueger. "I don't know that there's much that can be done in the last week before the election."
But Erin Scroggins, one of the three newcomers running against Krueger for two open council seats, said he will continue to work on getting remaining voters to send their ballots to Town Hall. He will also suggest going to the polls on Tuesday for those who have yet to turn a ballot in.
"There are another 100,000 registered voters in Gilbert that haven't voted yet, and we need to get them to turn out because their taxes are at stake," Scroggins said.
The current council is pondering a $12 million list of program and employee cuts proposed by Town Manager George Pettit to make up for an expected shortfall in sales tax and other revenue. Also on the table is Councilwoman Linda Abbott's proposal to add a half-cent public safety tax to the town's current 1.5 percent sales tax rate.
The council was scheduled to discuss and possibly vote on the tax hike Tuesday night, but Krueger said a vote was unlikely to come that soon.
The budget cuts Pettit put on the table mostly involve community programs, including youth sports, special-needs classes and special events such as the Gilbert Days rodeo and Fourth of July fireworks.
Around 20 full- and part-time employees would be laid off as a result of Pettit's plan, and the rest of the 1,100-member work force would be required to take 12 days off without pay. Fire and police union representatives say the furloughs would increase the amount of time it takes them to get to life-threatening emergencies.
"We're not getting a lot of questions from people, but we're getting an awful lot of e-mail from people writing about their own opinions," Krueger said, adding most are in favor of a tax increase, including some generally conservative people who she would not have expected.
Krueger had been running on a platform opposed to any tax increases, but she now says she is weighing the possibility of the extra revenue against the added burden on residents.
"It's more than just taking a philosophical opinion on this. I have a fiduciary responsibility to make ends meet," Krueger said.
Scroggins countered that he hasn't run across much support for the increase.
"The council is calling it a public safety tax but one person said they should call it a special programs tax because we have enough money to fund public safety," he said. "We're diverting it away to fund the special programs."
Scroggins is the only candidate who said he's had trouble finding backers of plan, with others saying public opinion appears to be evenly split or in favor of the extra revenue the tax would bring.
John Sentz had run on a platform against raising taxes similar to his opponents, but the council candidate is now backing Abbott's plan.
"It's not hard at all for me, not after all the things I've been hearing," he said. "What really concerns me is if we take three engine companies out of service each shift and we need to call someone for backup, there won't be anybody there."
Jenn Daniels said residents appear closely divided on the question of a tax increase, with many people asking for more information about what exactly does and doesn't need to be done.
"They want to be sure that we are cutting out nonessentials," she said. What isn't popular, she adds, are the proposed furloughs for police and fire personnel.
Mayoral candidate John Lewis dominated the returns in the March 19 primary, and he is facing write-in opponent Glen Spencer in the general election. He said the one topic that has been able to divert some attention away from the budget is last week's announcement by the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center that a $90 million cancer hospital would be built next to Gilbert's Banner Gateway Medical Center.
"They want to talk about the cancer center and what can we do to convince more groups to choose Gilbert?" Lewis said.
But budget and tax-related topics continue to dominate his conversations as well, Lewis said. While he's still opposed to tax increases and would rather look for efficiencies in government, broaching the topic has been worthwhile, he said.
"I appreciate how, when Linda (Abbott) made her recommendation, it seemed to just open up the Town Council," he said. "That's what I think many of us had expected to happen some months ago."
Spencer was the only council contender advocating for a sales tax increase before Abbott put the idea forward. But even if one is adopted, that can't replace looking for ways to make the town more efficient and attract a broader sales tax base, he said.
"In business you've got to look out three years from now, and you've got to have a marketing plan and a growth plan in place," he said. "This is no different."