Gilbert's budget debate took on a new complexion Tuesday night as town employees and residents turned out in large numbers to protest salary cuts and furloughs proposed by a budget committee.
More than 200 people jammed the chambers and lobby as Town Council members received a final report from the Citizens Budget Committee, a group appointed for nine weeks to review the budget and propose ideas to trim at least $14 million.
The final report, compiled by a steering committee, contains about $19 million worth of recommendations. They don't include seeking voter approval for the quarter-cent sales tax adopted and rescinded by the council this year.
The recommendations ask the council to consider a 5 percent salary cut for employees, a 10-day furlough and/or a 5 percent reduction in medical insurance costs.
Most people who spoke during the hearing said they opposed the sales tax hike. Many of those said they supported pay cuts, but crowd sentiment was clearly with those who took the opposite view.
Christine Cianciosi, an office assistant for the municipal court, said she earns $25,000 a year, and any cuts would set her back to what she was making when she graduated from college in 1987. She urged the council to consider the sales tax increase before resorting to salary cuts or furloughs.
"If these go through, there's a lot of us out there who are single parents, and we're not going to be able to make it. We're not going to be able to give you the kind of service you expect," she said.
A handful of residents made the case for the Gilbert Historical Society to continue receiving $50,000 a year from Gilbert, which would be reduced to about $37,000 under one recommendation. The money is used to pay the salary of the executive director, who is the museum's only paid employee.
Members of the Service Employees International Union, one of three unions that represent town employees, handed out flyers encouraging people to make a final show of support at a meeting next week when the council will discuss the recommendations.
Tax opponents still made their presence known through signs and banners. They represented about 25 of the roughly 40 public comments delivered during the four-hour meeting.
Tim Naquin brought the same "Don't Tread on Me" flag with an attached "Taxed Enough Already" sign that he has to other meetings. As a business owner, he said he's had to lay people off and eliminate their medical benefits this year. He said town staff should not feel singled out by the budget committee's recommendations.
"I'd just as soon give them whatever salary they need, but the money's not there, and you have to make some tough decisions. It shouldn't be a punishment, it's just the economic time we're in," he said.
As the meeting wore on, more anti-tax speakers said they felt there were other ways to close the budget gap without cutting into employee compensation. At the least, some suggested confining the decreases to upper management.
"I implore you, before you touch people's money, do everything you can to cut spending and certainly not raise taxes," Gilbert resident Kelly Townsend said. She suggested also selling town assets, everything from vacant land to the floating marble sculpture in Water Tower Plaza.
All the speakers stood at a podium with two bull's-eyes taped to it, put there by Town Councilman Steve Urie as an icebreaker before he started the presentation on committee recommendations. He answered critics of the budget committee process who said too many political insiders were in the lineup.
"I've received complaints from people who felt there were too many pro-tax people or too many anti-tax people on the committee, which tells me we may have done something right," Urie said.
The steering committee did recommend two tax proposals, a use tax that would mostly affect Salt River Project electric bills and eliminating a sales tax exemption for small-scale residential landlords.
The council didn't take any budget votes Tuesday, except the one at about 11 p.m. to begin discussion on the recommendations in earnest at next week's meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Gilbert Municipal Center, 50 E. Civic Center Drive.