Citizens offer plan: Tax initiative aims to shore up Prescott Police and Fire

PRESCOTT – After watching the dismantling of a number of city services in recent months, Barbara Anderson said she and her husband Ron, along with other concerned residents, decided it was time for citizen action.

The group was especially worried about the impact that recent City of Prescott budget cuts were having on the community’s public safety.

“Prescott is a safe place, and we want to keep it that way,” Barbara Anderson said this week, noting that her concerns had grown over the past six to eight months of cuts to the police department.

Those concerns led the Andersons and a group of other citizens to launch the “Yes for Prescott; Yes for Public Safety” effort.

The goal: To get a 0.6-percent sales tax initiative on the ballot in November. The tax increase is proposed to run for the next 10 years, and the revenue would go toward the police and fire department budgets, as well as toward the city’s more than $70 million in unfunded liabilities with the public-safety pension system.

This past week, the Yes for Prescott committee filed a statement of organization with Prescott City Clerk Dana DeLong. Barbara Anderson is listed as the chairman, while Clark Tenney is listed as the treasurer.

The April 7 filing allows group members to begin gathering signatures. They have until July 7 to file petitions containing at least 2,288 signatures of registered Prescott voters.

Part of the initiative’s plan is to ask the Prescott City Council to call a special election for this year’s general election, Nov. 8, 2016, seeking voter approval of the sales tax increase.

DeLong said the required number of signatures is determined by calculating 15 percent of the ballots cast in the last city election. With 15,250 valid ballots in the August 2015 primary, she said the minimum number of signatures is 2,288.

If the Yes for Prescott committee is successful in getting the required number of signatures, DeLong said the Prescott City Council would then have the option of setting a special city election for November. If the council decides not to set the election, she said, the initiative would have to wait until the next scheduled city election – in August 2017.

While Prescott City Council members have discussed the possibility of putting their own sales tax measure on the ballot, Mayor Harry Oberg said this week that the effort might be better coming from the citizens.

“The City Council came up with the 0.55 (percent) in the past, and it failed,” Oberg said, referring to the city’s unsuccessful August 2015 bid to raise sales tax by 0.55 percent to cover the city’s unfunded debt with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS).

“I always thought a citizen effort would be more favorably looked at,” said Oberg, who opposed the 0.55-percent tax, maintaining that the state should fix the pension system before the city takes action on a funding source.

Anderson pointed out that a pension fix has now been approved by the Arizona State Legislature, and voters will consider a portion of that fix on May 17 (Proposition 124, the Public Retirement Benefits Amendment which, if approved statewide, would allow the state legislature to adjust the PSPRS to exchange the permanent benefit increase structure for a compounding annual cost of living adjustment).

Anderson, a Realtor at Century 21 in Prescott, said the public safety issue is one that is important to property owners and prospective buyers, noting, “I get the question all the time – ‘how safe is Prescott?’”

She agrees with Oberg’s view that the measure might be more successful as a citizen’s effort. “It’s the ‘we the people’ thing,” she said. “Somebody has to do something.”

The 0.6-percent tax increase is projected to generate about $8.1 million per year. Of the total, 30 percent would go to supplement police and fire operations, services, personnel, and programs, while 70 percent would go toward paying down the city’s PSPRS debt.

Anderson pointed out that the tax would not be a “fix-all,” and would not cover the entire debt, but a news release from the group stated that it would cover “upwards of $57 million” over the next 10 years.

City officials have maintained that continued budget cuts would be needed in coming years to cover the rising pension costs. This past January, about $1 million in cuts/adjustments went into effect for the current fiscal year, and the city is contemplating more cuts for the coming 2017 fiscal year.

The Yes for Prescott group will conduct a petition-signing event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, April 16, at Century 21, 605 E. Gurley St., Prescott.