The possibility voters will reject Home Rule and force a roughly 60-percent cut in town spending continues to worry town officials and dominate political discussion.
The issue got new exposure as a result of two events — a confusing ballot and a Payson appearance by the Tucson Vice Mayor, who talked about that town’s shocking rejection of Home Rule.
Payson officials last week were alarmed when voters began receiving ballots in the mail-in election that many said made it difficult to figure out how to even vote for Home Rule.
“It’s a very confusing ballot,” said Payson Mayor Kenny Evans. “We’ve had lots of calls. I was just furious when I saw it.”
An outside contractor prepared the ballot for the Gila County Elections Department.
“I called them up to complain,” said Evans, who said he didn’t want to even pay for the ballot, considering its flaws.
The ballot lists the mayor and the four council candidates on one side and the Home Rule ballot measure on the other. The explanation of Home Rule occurs in both Spanish and English, which takes up so much space that to find the box marked “si/yes,” voters will have to open up the ballot.
However, the boxes for the council candidates on the opposite side of the ballot all appear before the fold. Payson officials worry that many voters will cast their votes for council, but not realize they have to unfold their ballots to cast a vote on Home Rule.
Phone calls to the Roundup also indicated voters were missing the Home Rule vote box.
Payson officials are also worried about the timing of the ballot.
Voters last week began receiving the ballot together with a yellow return envelope. Payson officials had been told the town ballots would go out on a different day than ballots for the Payson Unified School District budget override. However, both ballots showed up on the same day in many mailboxes. Payson officials worry voters might mix up the return envelopes — one yellow and one white.
Ballots returned in the wrong envelope won’t be counted, said Evans.
The Payson Unified School District budget override would allow the district to raise the property tax rate slightly — about $11 per year for the owner of a $100,000 home. The override would bring in about $800,000 annually, cushioning budget cuts for the coming year, estimated at perhaps $1.7 million.
District voters rejected the override request in November of 2008.
Voters may mix up issues
Town officials worry voters may mix the two issues, since the school override would raise taxes by about 6 cents a day for the owner of a $200,000 home, while the Home Rule measure would not affect tax rates at all.
Payson voters have approved by wide margins the Home Rule waiver of state-imposed spending limits every four years since 1980. If voters reject Home Rule, Payson’s budget would drop from about $43 million to a maximum of about $19 million.
Town officials have said spending limits that will take effect if voters reject the ballot measure would barely leave enough money to pay for police, fire, debt service and the water department. Even with big cuts in those core services, the town would have to shut down most other services and would no longer have enough spending authority to build the Blue Ridge pipeline or bring an ASU campus to Payson, say town officials.
No new taxes if Home Rule approved
Rejecting Home Rule would not result in the immediate reduction of any taxes. The town would likely bring in tens of millions of dollars from existing tax levels it could not spend.
Normally, the Home Rule exemption to spending limits passes routinely and evokes little comment in the course of the election campaign.
But this year’s different.
First, a handful of local critics have emerged at the few candidate forums held so far in Payson. Those critics maintain that Payson should drastically cut its spending, to return to its small-town roots. They note that only the severe impact of a rejection of Home Rule can make a big dent in the town’s budget. Moreover, if the town has to live with a $19-million spending limit, but continues to collect $10 million or more in taxes it can’t spend, the town can amass a reserve fund. The town could then go back to the voters in two years seeking another Home Rule vote, say supporters of a “no” vote.
But what really has people worried about whether Home Rule will pass was November’s stunning vote in Tucson, where voters rejected Home Rule.
As it happens, Tucson’s vice mayor made an appearance in Payson on Saturday, stumping for his bid for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.
Rodney Glassman said he thought the council there blundered when it raised taxes to cope with a sharp drop in tax revenues as a result of the recession.
The town council doubled the bed tax on hotels and doubled the utility tax on electric bills.
None of the council candidates in the subsequent election actively urged voters to approve Home Rule.
When the election came, voters narrowly rejected Home Rule and overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to set minimum staffing and response times for police and fire services. Voters also rejected most of the school budget override measures on the ballot. In addition, voters threw out the mayor and several incumbent council members, said Glassman.
Glassman said, “I was not in favor of the way the mayor and the council were running the city.”
Glassman said the town should have made major budget cuts rather than raising taxes in a recession.
Now, as a result of the failure of Home Rule, the city must make more than $32 million in cuts.
Big impact if Home Rule defeated
Payson faces the prospect of a much bigger impact if voters here reject Home Rule, mostly because the town has added so many major services since 1980 — including the $6.5-million water department and the $3-million fire department.
However, here the town council has already cut millions from the town budget as sales, property and income taxes have fallen. The town has laid off some workers and imposed furloughs on the whole town workforce amounting to a 12-15 percent pay cut. The council has also halted most capital improvements and even routine street maintenance.