When Prescott’s strategic-planning process kicked off in 2016, two main issues rose to the top: Resolving the city’s growing public-safety pension debt, and modernization of the Prescott Airport.
This past week, city officials reported significant progress on both fronts.
In its latest meeting with lobbyist and consulting facilitator Barry Aarons Friday, Jan. 11, the Prescott City Council conducted an update on the 2019 state of the city’s goals.
As the strategic-planning document was being developed in fall 2016, the then-$70 million deficit in funding for the Public Safety Personnel Retirement System (PSPRS) was central to the discussion.
That debt later rose to $86.4 million in 2017, before dropping to $69 million in late 2018.
Last week — a year after a 0.75-percent pension-related sales tax went into effect — City Manager Michael Lamar said, “I think we’ve made some real headway, with Proposition 443 (the sales tax initiative that voters approved in August 2017).”
That, in turn, has helped the city to move toward the first overriding goal of its strategic plan — stabilizing the general fund.
For years prior to the start of the new sales tax, an ever-growing percentage of the city’s general fund had been going toward the pension debt, while the unfunded PSPRS liability continued to rise. The goal of Proposition 443 was to pay down the debt, beyond the annual required amount.
This past year, the city contributed an additional $17 million toward the debt, including the revenue from the first half-year of the sales tax, and a lump-sum payment from budget reserves — all of which contributed to the December 2018 drop in the unfunded liability.
Along with the sales tax help, the city plan also listed a strategy of seeking legislative relief for the portion of the PSPRS debt attributed to pensions for the families of Prescott’s fallen Granite Mountain Hotshots.
Aarons pointed out that in an end-of-the-legislative-session move in 2018, Prescott’s State Rep. Noel Campbell “was able to get the $1 million of relief,” despite the state’s focus at the time on funding for teachers’ raises in the wake of the #RedForEd campaign.
A House of Representatives bill in May 2018 stated that $1 million was appropriated to the PSPRS for deposit in the employer account of the Prescott Fire Department group to offset increased pension liability.
The $1 million was salvaged after a proposed $7.5 million appropriation was swept away in the state’s move to ensure teachers’ raises.
Tyler Goodman, assistant to the city manager, said Friday that efforts would continue to get another bill approved in the 2019 legislative session for $7 million to cover the city’s remaining costs for pensions for the families of the fallen Hotshots, 19 of whom died fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in June 2013.
Later in 2013, the Legislature had approved a $5 million appropriation to help with the pension costs for the six permanent Hotshots. Meanwhile, four families of Hotshots originally considered seasonal employees by the city and not eligible for PSPRS won claims for pension benefits. In all, officials say the Hotshot pension costs total about $12.5 million.
Other major strategic-planning goals included:
• Economic development, with a focus on improving the Prescott Airport.
Since 2016, the airport has undergone a number of changes including: the arrival of a new commercial carrier, United Express; the achievement of 10,000 enplanements and the related $1 million in annual federal money; and the ongoing planning for a new airport terminal.
Aarons and city officials agreed the airport was “well on its way” to achieving the objectives listed under the economic-development goal.
• Quality of life, including a focus on acquisition of land for public ownership. Officials cited the late-2017 acquisition of 160 of Storm Ranch North land in the Granite Dells as progress toward that goal.