Photo by Cindy Barks.
Originally Published: July 13, 2017 6:02 a.m.
Parking and seating spaces were at a premium at the Las Fuentes Resort Village Wednesday, July 12, when the candidates running for Prescott City Council and Mayor met up for a public forum.
More than 200 people packed the Las Fuentes meeting room, filling the 100 or so chairs that had been set up, and occupying the standing room along the walls and in the foyer.
Former Prescott City Councilman Bob Roecker, who served as moderator for the forum, expressed surprise at the turnout, noting that he had expected about 100. “Interest is very high for this election,” he said afterward.
Roecker compiled the forum questions with help from the sponsoring Yavapai County Republican Party, and touched on everything from the city’s more than $78 million shortfall with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) unfunded liability, to whether homes with septic systems should be required to connect to the city’s sewer system.
While the forum was characterized more by agreement among the candidates than by conflict, some divides were apparent.
For instance, six of the council and mayoral candidates expressed strong support for the city’s Proposition 443 — a measure to raise the city sales tax by 0.75 percent to pay down the PSPRS liability — while two are firmly against the measure. (Council candidate Greg Lazzell was absent from the forum, but has expressed support for the proposition in the past).
Mayoral candidate Mary Beth Hrin and council candidate Phil Goode both repeated their opposition, with Hrin maintaining that the ballot wording is flawed, and Goode calling the measure “poor tax policy.” If elected, Hrin said she would immediately propose a new tax measure that would take a different approach – dedicating the revenue to the police and fire departments.
Mayoral candidates Jean Wilcox and Greg Mengarelli, on the other hand, both voiced strong support for Proposition 443, as written.
“I support Prop 443 proudly,” Mengarelli said, “No one’s going to pay (the PSPRS liability) for us. We are Prescott, and we pay our debts.”
Wilcox, an incumbent council member, added that she had served as chair of the strategic planning committee that initially proposed the tax increase, and that she sees the 0.75-percent tax as an effective way to pay down the pension liability.
Other council candidates also were strongly in the “yes” camp on the proposition, with incumbent councilman Steve Blair emphasizing the financial impact to other city services, if the tax fails. “I would hate to see services diminished, but if 443 doesn’t pass, that’s reality,” he said.
Candidates also differed somewhat on the issue of septic systems in Prescott city limits, and whether the owners of the homes should be required to connect to the city sewer.
Wilcox pointed out that homeowners could face costs of as much as $60,000 – an expense that many cannot bear. She suggested that the city should help with the costs of connecting the homes to the sewers.
Council candidate Joe Viccica added that his parents had owned a Pennsylvania home with a septic system, and had been required to connect to the city sewer, at a high cost. Because of the hardship he saw on his own family, he said, “If (the city) can find a way to work with the homeowners, and perhaps subsidize those costs, I would be for it.”
Council candidate Alexa Scholl advocated for looking for innovative ways of helping homeowners pay the cost. “I know how expensive it is (to make the conversion),” she said, adding that she also had grown up in home with a septic system.
While other candidates agreed with the importance of converting the septic systems to sewer for health and safety reasons, some issues arose over city assistance. Rather, several suggested improvement districts and/or loans, which would help the homeowners to pay the costs gradually. “I do not believe the city in general should have to pay,” Goode said.
Meanwhile, several questions elicited fairly similar answers from the candidates. For instance, they all appeared to agree that improvements and expansion were needed at the Prescott Airport.
Council candidate Connie Cantelme emphasized the need for an expanded runway to handle not just commerce, but the slurry bombers that fight wildfires as well. “We need those bombers,” she said.
Candidates also were firmly united against city bankruptcy, should voters reject Prop 443.
The forum was expected to go on for about two hours, but just past the midway point, it was interrupted by a fire alarm, which caused the evacuation of the room. Jacque Auwarter, a party state committee member and forum organizer, announced that the alarm was caused by an issue in the nearby assisted-living facility, and the crowd quickly dispersed.
Roecker said afterward that he had planned to ask questions on a number of other issues, including bike lanes on city streets, a jail tax, and open space purchases. He also had intended to open the questioning up to the audience.