Budget realities might force Gilbert to alter the level of services and amenities it provides, some of the candidates for May’s runoff Town Council election suggested in a forum hosted Monday by the East Valley Tribune.
The six contestants for three open seats — incumbents Linda Abbott, Ben Cooper, Dave Crozier and Les Presmyk and challengers Victor Petersen and Jordan Ray — met with the Tribune’s editorial board Monday at the paper’s new Tempe office. The town’s projected $6 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year was one of the major concerns.
“We need to have a discussion as a community about what level of service we need and expect, and what’s the cost,” Cooper said. “Then, we need to determine how to pay for it, and develop ways to do it.”
Most were loathe to increase taxes, with Petersen saying, “That’s the easy out. It’s not the direction we should go.”
In their first forum together since advancing to the runoff in March’s primary election, the candidates addressed such topics as the town manager search, controversial Zinke dairy land purchase and protecting Gilbert’s small-town farming and ranching heritage as it has grown into the state’s seventh-largest municipality.
Challenger Eddie Cook received enough votes in the primary to win a seat outright, meaning that at least one of the incumbents will not return after the May 17 election. The new Council will be seated on June 23.
Ray said that, from a planning standpoint, the recent economic slowdown has been a blessing for Gilbert.
“After being one of the fastest-growing communities in the country for so long, we can catch our breath and come up with a good strategy,” Ray said. “A lot of that will involve attracting high-paying jobs.”
Abbott said that the home-building collapse was especially jolting for Gilbert, “so the challenge is the expansion and development of new business,” she added. “This is an area the town has already been successful” in, she said.
Save for brief sparring between Presmyk and Petersen on budget issues, the forum’s tone was civil, even during talk of the Zinke land deal that has been one of the biggest issues in the campaign.
In a deal approved by the Council in January 2009, the town paid $42.7 million for 142.5 acres of land — or $300,000 per acre, about 10 times what surrounding land sold for at the time — from dairy owner Bernard Zinke for future parks and roadways. No appraisal was commissioned during the sale, which was negotiated by then-Town Manager George Pettit.
Abbott, Crozier and Presmyk were on the Council then; all voted yes.
“With 20/20 hindsight, was it a good deal? Absolutely not,” Presmyk said. “I would be the first one to admit that.
“But Gilbert builds large parks for the region. At the time, parcels of land the size that we bought were becoming more and more scarce. If the economy had stayed up, we would not be having this discussion.”
The town has since changed its land-acquisition policy to prevent similar breakdowns. The Arizona Attorney General’s Office is investigating the Zinke transaction.
“It was the right land, right location, right time, wrong price,” Ray said. “I hope and think that nothing illegal was done by the Council. I think it was a complete oversight by the Council. … I hope we learned our lesson from it, and it was a huge amount of money to pay to learn that lesson.”
Added Petersen: “The buck stops with the Council.”
Abbott said that the Council was unaware that Pettit was not following procedures. Crozier called the Zinke deal a “complex one” involving equipment and rights of way that took two years to finalize, with the market changing during that time.
“I think anyone sitting in their homes today that they bought during the real-estate boom can relate,” Crozier said. “They can look back now and feel that it might not have been a good decision to buy because the house is worth less than what they paid. That phenomenon was at work here.”
In other matters:
• The list of town manager finalists will be released on May 18, the day after the election. A decision could be made before the new Council is seated, but the challengers are having input during the process.
• When candidates were asked what services the town could better provide, Crozier cited road conditions as a concern. “That is becoming a struggle,” he said. “If you neglect roads now, that costs more down the line. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an approach you want to take long term.”
• The candidates stressed the importance of preserving the annual Gilbert Days celebration. The rodeo will be held in Apache Junction in 2011 after Gilbert Rodeo Park’s closure, but the parade and carnival will remain inside the town.
• The $6 million deficit for the upcoming fiscal year — about half of what town officials initially feared — is due in part to better-than-expected recent sales-tax receipts and positions that remain unfilled, particularly 18 vacancies in the police department. Money was not the factor in keeping the police positions open, Presmyk said.
“With the budget, that decision makes us look like heroes,” Presmyk said. “But the fact is that we and the (police) department could not find personnel we felt were qualified enough to wear the Gilbert uniform.”
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