Gilbert budget panel reveals proposals - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Gilbert budget panel reveals proposals

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Posted: Friday, October 23, 2009 9:15 pm | Updated: 2:28 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Proposals from Gilbert's Citizens Budget Committee include reassigning 10 school resource and 12 motorcycle-riding traffic officers to regular patrol beats, and doing away with the town's SWAT team.

Some probable recommendations from subcommittees of Gilbert's Citizens Budget Committee began to bubble up this week, including ideas that would impact police and fire protection in town.

Some of the most concrete suggestions were unveiled by Michael Vicscusi, chairman of a subcommittee reviewing the police department's $43.1 million budget.

The proposals included reassigning 10 school resource and 12 motorcycle-riding traffic officers to regular patrol beats, and doing away with the town's SWAT team, which requires an estimated $4 million in additional officer training.

Viscusi said Gilbert could turn to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office SWAT team in cases where one was needed, at least during lean economic times.

"Nobody wants to do away with it, but we did without it for several years," he said.

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Most of those present appeared comfortable with letting the sharpshooter-centered team go, but were less enthusiastic about the possibility of moving officers based at junior and senior high schools.

Viscusi said the school districts could hire off-duty cops to perform that function, but Town Councilman John Sentz responded: "The idea for the SRO program is to have the officer go in and develop relationships with the students, so just bringing in off-duty officers kind of defeats the whole purpose."

A steering committee, made up of the leaders of the seven budget subcommittees, three Town Council members and three residents representing the public, is to submit cost-cutting and revenue-raising recommendations to the council by mid-December. The subcommittees are to give recommendations to the steering committee by the middle of next month.

Most of the talk during a meeting Thursday centered on money-saving measures and fee increases. But there appears to be a good chance at least one subcommittee would broach the idea of a tax increase in its final report.

This summer the town council adopted a half-cent sales tax hike to help close predicted $15 million budget shortfalls over the next five years, but the body reversed it following a public outcry and referendum drive.

Johnna Switzer, chairwoman of the fire department budget subcommittee, said her group was likely to back a dedicated public safety tax in its recommendations, though they had not decided whether it should be in the form of a sales or property tax.

Among the money-saving items she said might come forward included one simple declaration: "no more free annexations." The town began waiving annexation fees for some unincorporated county islands after those residents were notified they would be losing their service from Rural/Metro Corp.

One recommendation the police committee will probably pursue could affect the fire department as well; lobbying for the creation of a countywide-911 dispatch center. Some say the idea could be funded by a surcharge on cell phone bills, relieving the public service agencies of having to foot that bill.

Jim Bilas, chairman of the community services subcommittee, said a tax increase was among the options his committee may recommend, though he could not say which ones might make the cut.

What he said is developing is a philosophy that residents should foot more of the overall cost for the town's parks and recreation programs. The idea would be to keep the programs affordable enough for those who want to get involved in sports and other activities before moving on to private-sector options if they want to take it to the next level.

"We don't want to be the be-all end-all, we want to be the starting point of the process," he said.

James Flanagan, chair of the administrative services subcommittee, said his group is still strongly considering a rollback of employee salaries, as well as looking for a less-expensive health insurance plan. Moving the town's election cycle from odd to even years, allowing the town to piggyback with state and national elections, could also be suggested.

Councilman Steve Urie, who represents the council on the steering committee, along with Sentz and Councilwoman Jenn Daniels, said Gilbert should look at having private contractor collect its sales tax revenue, which Bullhead City recently started doing. Urie said officials could track receipts and catch errors much more quickly that way.

Other budgetary areas and the possible recommendations mentioned for them include:

Public works: Charging for bulk trash pickup. Having residents leave trash cans on one side of the street or the other to shorten trips. Reduce the amount of town vehicles and encouraging residents to pay utility bills online.

Development services: Revamp and streamline the business permitting process, reviewing how vigorously code compliance cases should be prosecuted.

Capital projects and development fees: Sell off excess property and invest the town's $336 million cash reserves in a higher-interest account.

The steering committee's next meeting will be 5 p.m. Nov. 5. Upcoming meeting dates for the subcommittees are available through the town Web site at www.ci.gilbert.az.us.

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