As 2010 ended, Gilbert mayor John Lewis looked back fondly at a year that, for his town, was about celebrating.
A 90th birthday commemoration was highlighted by a July 6 event, attended by Gov. Jan Brewer, that honored longtime Gilbert residents and town figures.
The birthday activities “were a key part of what carried the town through 2010,” Lewis said.
The celebration was a respite from the everyday challenges faced by Gilbert, which strives to maintain a small-town feel but must deal with some big-city realities. The town has earned recognition for its safety and amenities, but maintaining that quality of life will be a task, Lewis said.
“When people ask me to describe Gilbert, I say we are a clean, safe, vibrant community, and I think that works,” said Lewis, who was elected in May 2009.
“The challenge is to keep Gilbert with all of the amenities the town has today. Of course, communities get older, and we need to look at the funding that is needed to keep them.”
Gilbert, which has about 220,000 residents and 1,200 employees, faces a projected annual deficit of $10 million to $16 million for at least the next four years.
A strategic assessment team is developing a budget blueprint for the next decade and beyond. Lewis said that — given the economic downtowns of the state and nation — Gilbert has done the best numbers crunching it could.
“We identified priorities related to the budget and ended up with good solutions,” Lewis said. “A few years down the road, we might look back at some of the solutions and think it wasn’t appropriate, but for what we knew at the time, I think we made good decisions for the town.”
In June, the Town Council approved a $504 million budget package for fiscal 2010-11, avoiding layoffs — although some vacant positions will remain unfilled — and service cuts.
The town asked voters for a 0.25 percent city sales tax increase in May to avoid cuts to public safety. That measure was rejected, but Gilbert balanced the budget by using more than $7 million in savings-fund transfers.
Gilbert has more than $20 million remaining in savings funds that can be used to address future shortfalls, but town officials want to limit future use.
“That isn’t something we can continue every year, using fund balances,” Lewis said. “I anticipate we might use some more fund balances this year, but as long as we’re looking long-term and have good plans in place, we’ll get by. For this year, we’ll have options and tough decisions, but we’ve learned a lot from the last two years.”
Lewis said that job creation is his top long-term revenue-producing goal.
The town has touted its embrace of green energy, led by a solar-power facility that will be constructed at the Neely Wastewater Reclamation Plant near Guadalupe and Cooper roads.
But Lewis feels that biomedical and life-science services can become Gilbert’s business calling card. The Banner M.D. Anderson Cancer Center opens late this year.
“In our strategic planning, that really emerged as a priority,” Lewis said. “I think from a health-care perspective, we are well-positioned for that to create a identity for the town.”
In other Gilbert matters in 2011:
• The Town Council primary election is March 8, with the general election May 17. Four Council incumbents — vice mayor Les Presmyk, Dave Crozier, Linda Abbott and Ben Cooper — will be up for re-election, and seven challengers qualified for the ballot.
• A general plan that outlines town growth — in such areas as economic development, housing, traffic, parks and trails, arts and culture and environmental issues — for the next two decades goes before voters on May 17. Gilbert, per state law, is required to draft a general plan every 10 years.
• Lewis said that March remains the Council’s target on starting the process of hiring a town manager. Interim manager Collin DeWitt’s contract expires in June.
• The traffic-signal retiming study will be completed, and Gilbert officials expect improved flow after the town’s 172 stoplights are better synchronized.
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