Pension debt, sales tax dominate first Prescott candidate forum
One question was obviously uppermost on the minds of those attending the first Prescott City Council candidate forum Friday, June 16: Yes or no on Proposition 443, the city’s pension-related sales tax-increase measure?
Nearly 100 people packed the forum, sponsored by the Republican Women of Prescott, to hear four council candidates and two mayoral candidates field questions on a variety of topics.
As expected, though, Prescott’s plight with the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) dominated much of the discussion, which took place at Las Fuentes Resort Village.
Central to the forum was a question on whether the candidates support the 0.75-percent sales tax increase measure, which will appear on the city’s Aug. 29 primary ballot, with the revenue from the tax dedicated to paying down the city’s $78 million in unfunded liability with the PSPRS.
Overall, candidate responses were mixed on the topic, with one mayoral candidate expressing opposition to Prop 443, and one council candidate also against the measure.
Meanwhile, two mayoral candidates have expressed support, and five council candidates are also on the record as supporting proposition.
Linda Nichols, president of the organization and forum moderator, explained that the bylaws of the Republican Woman of Prescott allow only Republicans at the podium. Therefore, only Republican candidates were invited to the forum, even though the council race is non-partisan.
The two mayoral candidates present – Mary Beth Hrin and Greg Mengarelli – expressed opposing views on Prop 443.
Hrin told the crowd that she opposes the proposition because “there’s no way for the voters to be assured that our pension liability’s going to be paid down.”
Noting that even though Prescott has always paid its annual obligation, Hrin said, “Our pension liability gets bigger and bigger and bigger.” Unless the city were to pay the annual PSPRS payment every year, on top of the sales tax revenue, she said, “We are never going to pay down our liability, ever.” Rather, she pushed for statewide “structural reform” of the pension system.
Mengarelli, however, maintained that the city needs to “take care of the $78 million staring us in the face,” while continuing to work with the state on continued pension reform.
Already, he said, “Some things have been done that will help (the system).” He added: “I say we get on the bandwagon and take care of it as soon as possible.”
Mayoral candidate Jean Wilcox was not at the forum, but she has expressed her support for Prop 443, calling it “the best immediate way to pay down our PSPRS obligation so we can maintain the level of public safety service we have now, restore full funding of our public library, continue to provide great recreation opportunities, and do a better job of enforcing city codes.”
Council candidates were mostly in favor of the proposition as well, with five of the six expressing support. Only candidate Phil Goode voiced opposition, calling the system “broken,” and asking, “When do we stop feeding the beast?” Rather, he advocated giving a recently appointed statewide legislative ad hoc committee a chance to fix the system before moving toward a tax increase.
But other council candidates voiced strong support for the measure.
Incumbent candidate Greg Lazzell, for instance, cautioned against Prescott becoming among the “sacrificial lambs” that would ultimately convince the state to fix the problem. “It has to be fixed at the state level, and it will be, but only when communities start crashing through the house of cards,” Lazzell said. “I don’t want us to be part of the house of cards.”
Council candidate Constance Cantelme said she supports the measure, in part, because “I don’t have any hopes that this is going to be solved (at the state level) anytime soon.”
Incumbent candidate Steve Blair also added his support, maintaining that failure of the measure would bring dire consequences. “If 443 doesn’t pass, it’s plain and simple — the library will be closed another day, maybe two (in addition to the current Sunday closure), and we will have to brown out a fire station,” he said.
Council candidates Alexa Scholl and Joe Viccica were not at the forum, but they later expressed their support for 443 as well.
While Scholl allowed that there are “systemic issues” with the PSPRS, she said Prop 443 would allow the city to maintain its fire, police, library, and recreation services, while paying down its liability. In addition, she said, “I’m a fierce advocate of public safety personnel, and we owe it to them. This is their retirement and their livelihood.”
Viccica added his support as well, noting that the PSPRS payments “have been such a hit on our general fund.” While agreeing that the PSPRS “does need to be fixed at the state level,” Viccica added, “We can’t control what happens at the state; we can control what happens in Prescott.”
Other issues that were debated during the forum included open space, downtown blight, and the Big Chino Water Ranch.
The Yavapai County Republican Party announced recently that another Las Fuentes forum will take place from 3 to 5 p.m., July 12, which will include all of the mayor and council candidates. Las Fuentes is located at 1045 Scott Drive, Prescott.