The Gilbert Town Council agreed Saturday to set aside 15 minutes at every meeting between now and the May 18 election for comments from citizens who want to speak for or against passage of the town sales tax increase, which will be on the ballot.
Beginning Tuesday, all council meetings will have a separate agenda item after the standing “Communications from Citizens” item for voters to speak for or against a quarter-cent sales tax increase proposed to help close the town’s $15 million budget shortfall.
Debate will be restricted to the local issue, so comments about the proposed statewide sales-tax increase, which will be on the same ballot, won’t be allowed.
The time limit is intended to keep the disruption of the meeting’s flow to a minimum.
The citizen communications period has a 15-minute time limit in the town ordinance which the council can extend, but longtime Councilman Les Presmyk said he can’t remember it ever being enforced.
Vice Mayor Linda Abbott and Councilwoman Jenn Daniels voted against the change, with Abbott favoring public input but expressing concern about the growing length of council meetings, and Daniels favoring fewer restrictions on speakers.
Some residents raised First Amendment concerns after the Feb. 9 meeting when told they could not advocate for or against the tax hike because it would violate a state law against using public resources to influence the outcome of an election.
“This isn’t a First Amendment issue as far as I’m concerned, because it’s state law,” said Presmyk, who voted with the majority to allow the 15-minute time block.
“Communications from Citizens” is intended to allow people to talk to the council about any topic that isn’t on the meeting agenda.
Town Attorney Susan Goodwin said public debate about the topic at council meetings would constitute an illegal use of town property, but local citizens and an attorney from the Goldwater Institute said the state statute is clearly meant to stop elected officials or government employees campaigning with publicly funded facilities or materials.
Council members said the policy could continue for future elections regarding ballot items, but would not become a platform for candidates or their supporters to speak out.
Gilbert resident Jerry McBee, a critic of the previous public comment policy, was in the audience at Saturday’s meeting and said he felt the council’s action would probably satisfy those who had been objecting.
If the council hadn’t done anything, he said, “we were ready to file something (legal action) tomorrow,” he said.
In other action Saturday, the council prepared for the upcoming budget process and the retirement of Town Manager George Pettit. Fire Chief Collin DeWitt was formally named as interim town manager, effective March 1.
The council showed no interest in increasing the town’s secondary property tax rate from $1.15 per $100 assessed valuation for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. A formal vote will come later in the budget process, which runs from March through June.
This money is used to pay off bond debt for construction projects and cannot be used for salaries or other town operating costs.
Assistant Town Manager Mark Skocypec said the full effect of the real-estate crash is emerging in new figures from the county assessors office, which show total assessed values in Gilbert dropping just over 14 percent from the current fiscal year, which itself was a 3.4 percent drop from the year before.
The county is projecting further declines of 15 to 25 percent for the next two years after that.
This year, commercial property is taking a bigger hit — with a 24.2 percent year-over-year decrease — than residential, where median values dropped almost 15 percent, to $157,100.
These declines are in line with the rest of Maricopa County, Skocypec said, and at Gilbert’s current property tax rate can be expected to choke off Gilbert’s ability to issue new bonds.
“We have enough money to cover existing bonds, but we generally don’t have any money to take on more debt,” Skocypec said.
Many more budget-related issues are on the agenda for the next council meeting Tuesday, including a decision on whether to proceed with building a 10th fire station with $3 million in federal stimulus funding, with the town’s estimate of additional funding needed to finish the project now at about $550,000, down from previous estimates of $1 million.