The Payson Town Council got a glimpse of an apocalyptic budget future last week — and wound up pleading with distracted voters for their fiscal lives.
Specifically, the council heard a report on what will happen if voters in March decide to vote against the normally routine ballot measure authorizing a home rule provision to let the town exceed its constitutional state spending limit.
If voters next March reject what amounts to a budget override, the town’s spending limit will shrink from something like $57 million to more like $14 million.
Worse yet, the vote won’t come until late in the fiscal year, which could result in devastating, retroactive cuts, officials said.
“It’s pretty draconian,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. He said if the town spends its $10.5-million federal stimulus grant on the Blue Ridge Pipeline before March and then voters reject the ballot measure, the town could end up with only $4 million to spend on all other town functions. Currently, the budget for the police department alone is about $5 million.
“We would have to shut the town down completely — police, fire, everything,” concluded Evans.
Councilor Ed Blair said at last week’s council meeting, “I appreciate the heads-up, we simply must vote ‘yes’ on this or it will be the biggest tragedy ever.”
The threat to the town’s finances dates back to a voter-approved ballot measure from 1980. The voters imposed a spending ceiling on all local governments in the state, with provisions for small annual increases above current budgets based on a combination of population increase and inflation.
The formula would have required deep reductions in spending in each of the past four years. For instance, the town had an authorized budget of $31 million to $36 million each year in the period between 2006 and 2009. However, the state expenditure limit would have limited spending to $19-17 million per year.
Backers of the measure hoped that the restrictions would dramatically slow the growth of government spending — essentially freezing budgets at the 1980 level, but allowing for population increases and inflation.
The measure also allowed voters to approve higher spending limits through the home rule provisions by going to the polls once every four years. Payson voters handily approved the extension four years ago.
Passage of the measure would not increase any taxes or fees, but would prevent the town from spending most of the money it takes in.
However, Payson voters rejected a similar budget override for the Payson Unified School District a year ago even before the recession, forcing the district to make about $1 million in cutbacks. The combination of that vote and the impact of the recession on voters’ finances has made the council nervous about an election that amounts to a death sentence for town government.
Councilor John Wilson observed “I will go to any organization to explain this to them and why it’s a no-brainer” to vote ‘yes.’
Councilor Su Connell said a no vote “would mean more cuts, more loss of jobs. We are in very tough economic times. ‘Yes,’ in my mind, is the only answer to this question.”