It’s going to be a bumpy ride to Election Day for a proposed $515-million bond to pay for projects such as road repairs, the Ocotillo Bridge and trail crossings in Gilbert as opposition arises ahead of early voting.
It’s an all-mail election Nov. 2 for Gilbert with eligible voters receiving a ballot beginning Oct. 6. Gilbert’s election cost was anticipated to be just below $185,000.
“This bond seems like a slush fund of we’ll just find some way to spend it if we can get it,” said Councilman Laurin Hendrix at last week’s Council meeting. “We just ask for as much money as we can get and then dream up some way to spend it because the best thing is to have control of taxpayers’ money so we can spend it how we please.”
In the last two decades, Gilbert voters have approved four different transportation-related bonds totaling $363 million – all spent. The last transportation bond approved was in 2007 for $174 million.
Hendrix’s comment on the upcoming bond came as he questioned a state allotment of $7.9 million to Gilbert to help pay for the construction of Ocotillo Bridge, which will connect two major arterial roads near the regional park.
Hendrix said the Town lobbied the state for the money, which comes from taxpayers, and “there’s also an effort being made to pursue Gilbert taxpayers to see if we could tax them again.”
Hendrix’s objection to the bond was joined by Councilwoman Aimee Yentes and Jared Taylor, who is a chairman of the Maricopa County Republicans Legislative District 12 and a former Gilbert councilman.
The trio penned a public letter presenting a case for why voters should reject the bond, stating that the Town has “a track record of wasteful spending.” (See page 23.)
They pointed to the University Building that the town built in the Heritage District for $36 million to house a private Catholic university, which ended up breaking the lease less than a year into its stay.
“Gilbert was left with an annual $2 million loss,” the three stated. “This is just one example of how the Town has been an unwise steward of your money.”
They also went after the town’s assertion that passage of the hefty bond won’t increase property taxes and pointed to the recently opened Public Safety Training Facility, which was funded in part by a $65 million bond passed in 2018.
“It has resulted in three tax increases since the bond was voter-approved,” they claimed.
General obligation bond debt is paid off by secondary property taxes.
For the proposed new bond, the Town maintains the current rate of $0.99 per $100 of assessed property value would remain unchanged if it passes because this proposed debt would replace old debt that’s being paid off.
Property owners, however, would see their tax bill go up if the value of their home increases and if the county or school district rates increase.
Hendrix at the Council meeting also said the Town was asking for $515 million because it “was just the amount that we thought we could get away with tapping the taxpayers for because it kept the rate the same because we’re paying off other bonds.”
He wasn’t convinced Gilbert needs to take on such a large debt burden.
“I guess as a taxpayer, I’d rather you come to me and tell me you’re going to build something or you’re going to buy something and you want me to approve the purchase of that,” Hendrix said. “I don’t want you to ask me to give you essentially half of the annual budget to just use as a discretionary fund as you see fit.”
According to staff, the bond amount likely won’t be enough.
“What we’re seeing right now with the construction market is a considerable amount of cost escalation in the industry in general,” said Public Works Director Jessica Marlow last week. “That $515 million likely would not even complete all of the projects that we currently have planned because of the added costs due to those cost escalations.”
The bond is based on identified needs in the Town’s Capital Improvement Program over the next five years.
Some of the proposed bond projects included reconstructing Guadalupe Road from Arizona Avenue to McQueen Road to reduce congestion and increase safety with improvements such as turn-lanes and the Val Vista Lakes reconstruction, which would replace and reconstruct deteriorating infrastructure.
Marlow also said the Town would only sell the bonds as needed.
“So, if at the end of the day we complete the projects and we don’t need to sell that $8 million or $7.5 million in bonds, we just wouldn’t sell it,” she said.
Hendrix, Yentes and Taylor also called the bond vague and are urging voters to turn it down and want officials to bring up a $100 million bond next year instead.
The Town originally planned to take the bond to voters last year but postponed it due to the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on the economy.
Officials say if the bond is put off another year, it would put the Town further behind in its ability to keep up with the needs of a growing community and its ability to mitigate increasing construction costs.
And “while the language of the bond does not list specific projects to be completed, it is specific in that the projects will be directly related to streets and transportation needs, along with infrastructure that is directly associated with the roadways and transportation systems, such as drainage improvements, retention basins and parking structures,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Harrison.
As for the University Building, Harrison called it “unfortunate” but she noted the original tenant paid $4 million for breaking the lease and today, Park University and University of Arizona are occupying the space.
The Town also disputed the comment that it has a track record of wasteful spending. Officials pointed to recent savings to taxpayers such as refinancing debt at a saving of $38 million since 2012, saving $9 million in spending since fiscal year 2019 by implementing zero-base budgeting and reducing debt by $67 million since 2012 with early payments.
They further pointed to the Town’s AAA bond rating, which means lower interest rates, and the low cost for services such as water and wastewater and the low sales and property taxes compared with other Valley cities.
The Town added the CIP projects are published annually for viewing and that each year the CIP plan is updated with public input.
The bond also is facing attacks from outside of Town Hall.
Signs have popped up in Gilbert pushing for the bond’s demise by tying it to Mayor Brigette Peterson. The signs are mostly purple, the mayor’s signature color.
Since taking office in January, Peterson has incurred the wrath of residents, mostly from Morrison Ranch over her behind-the-scene support of a developer’s proposal to increase the number of apartment units in a project in their development. The developer also co-chaired her mayoral campaign last year.
Three residents and an employee have each filed an ethics complaint against Peterson that were under investigation by an outside law firm.
The signs read, “You can’t trust Mayor Peterson. No on the Bond,” and “Peterson supports taxpayer dollars for sex change surgery. No on the bond.”
The latter sign referred to Peterson’s support to include sex-change surgery in the Town’s employee insurance coverage. Staff recommended the inclusion in order to keep up with other municipalities that were offering the benefit in order to stay competitive.
The proposal, however, failed to garner the votes to pass with only two others on Council siding with the mayor.
When asked if the mayor thought she might be a liability for the bond’s success at the ballot box, her aide responded instead of Peterson.
“Last November over 70,000 Gilbert residents elected Mayor Peterson to lead Gilbert forward,” said Chris Kelly in an email. “Mayor Peterson has spent the past 20 years working to make Gilbert the best place to live, work and paly through her work on the Planning Commission, Town Council, and now mayor. Her careful planning and forward thinking have led to Gilbert becoming one of the top places to live in the nation.”