Will Payson voters decide to “shut down” town government come spring?
Hoping to make sure they don’t, two council members this week formed a committee to lobby on behalf of “home rule,” which would extend the town’s 30-year-old exemption from a state spending limit.
“We want people to come and help us” inform voters and fight false information, said Councilor Su Connell.
Connell and Councilor John Wilson formed the Home Rule Committee this week and by the end of next week hope to enlist a team of volunteers to get the word out on the potential impact of rejecting home rule.
If voters refuse to extend for another four years Payson’s “home rule” status, the town would have to cut spending to about $14 million. The current town budget envisions spending up to $57 million, more than half of it various state and federal grants. The town’s general fund operating budget exceeds $24 million.
Moreover, if voters reject home rule in the spring, the town will have already spent above the new, $14-million limit.
If home rule doesn’t pass “then we shut down the town,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “When I say shut it down, that’s exactly what I mean. By that point in the budget process we’ll be two-thirds through spending roughly $30 million, so we will have already exceeded the amount we can spend for the year. We will not be able to continue even basic services – police, fire and water.”
Connell said she’s already heard opponents of the home rule exception to the spending caps spread misinformation.
“We have to give people the facts,” she said. “They think it’s letting us spend like drunken sailors – that’s not true. We cannot spend more than we have.”
Evans noted that the home rule vote won’t have any impact on tax collections – only on whether the town can spend the money it collects.
“If voters reject home rule, their taxes don’t change,” said Evans.
The town’s property and sales taxes would continue unchanged if voters reject the home rule provision, but the town could not spend more than about $14 million. The rest of the money would accumulate as a surplus, said Evans.
That contrasts to the situation when voters more than a year ago rejected the Payson Unified School District’s request for a budget override. That measure also would have let the district spend above a state imposed limit. However, in the case of the school district, when voters rejected the district’s request for the override, it automatically reduced property tax levels. Moreover, the loss of the override imposed about a million-dollar reduction in the district’s budget – a dramatically smaller percentage than the reduction in Payson spending voter rejection of home rule would require.
“So as a practical matter, the money would accumulate” if voters reject home rule, said Evans.
Rejection of the measure would create a morass of legal problems for the town – from the employment contracts with employees to the state and federal agreements governing taxes and grants turned over to the town.
“We’d get all tangled up in a fiasco – and it would be a fiasco,” said Evans.
The $14-million limit would require wholesale cuts in spending, he said. The town currently spends more than $5 million on the police department and about $4 million on fire protection and the water department. Those three items alone would gobble up most of the allowed spending.
Moreover, the town recently received $10.5 million in federal grants to start work on the $30-million Blue Ridge pipeline. All that spending would also be covered by the expenditure limits. As a result, even after somehow getting through that first year the town would probably have to make deep cuts in police, fire and water services and still not be legally able to spend money on streets or capital projects like the Blue Ridge pipeline, said Evans.
Connell said she hopes the committee she formed this week will mount a campaign that will ensure voters understand all the impacts before they go to the polls.
“This has nothing to do with taxes,” she said. “It doesn’t increase taxes, it doesn’t decrease taxes. My job is to make sure voters are educated on the impact of saying ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’”