Editorial: City budget fix not easy for anyone, Mr. Mayor

The City of Prescott remains mired in budget challenges, or how to pay for them. It can be a difficult pill to swallow.

This past fall, voters sent a message: no more taxes. That was in response to a sales tax hike designed to help pay off the city’s unfunded liabilities related to the PSPRS (Public Safety Personnel Retirement System). The debt stands at about $70 million.

The word we received from then-mayoral candidate (now-mayor) Harry Oberg, in not supporting that sales tax initiative, was he wanted to see what the state Legislature does to fix the system and that he believes any effort to raise the sales tax should come from the citizens.

He even pledged to keep pressure on the state to get something done.

“We do have a bill we have to pay,” he told the Courier at the time, referring to the unfunded pension obligations. “But I think the problem I see right now is that maybe (the city sales tax) is premature. I think reform could reduce our liability.”

Well, the state acted and voters also approved changes. And, while the city’s liability has improved moving forward with certain tweaks, the debt remains.

In the meantime, mostly between November 2015 and January 2016, the city shed a number of positions, froze some, re-organized others, and cut a lot of expenses. Some have led to, for example, the brownouts at fire stations.

Now fast-forward to this spring and this past week. The Yes for Prescott committee circulated petitions to put on the ballot a 0.6-percent sales tax increase to benefit the police and fire budgets, as well as the city’s PSPRS debt (the 2015 proposal was a 0.55-percent sales tax hike).

It fell short by eight signatures, but the possibility exists that the council could place the initiative on the ballot anyway.

At this point it feels like Oberg is hedging. He would prefer the initiative be citizen driven. I think that comes down to Oberg not wanting taxes to go up on his watch.

But, as I see it, Oberg will either be the mayor who was in office when taxes went up – or he’ll be known as the mayor who presided over massive budget cuts, which lead to cuts in services. And more cuts are to come, officials have said.

Pick your poison, Mr. Mayor. Neither way is easy.