With the general election less than a month away, the issues of taxes, public safety and homelessness were all topics of discussion during the final Flagstaff City Council candidate forum Thursday night.
Hosted at the American Legion in downtown Flagstaff, the candidates answered questions for nearly two hours from both of the moderators, as well as members of the public.
With so many propositions on this November’s ballot offering to raise local taxes in one way or another, the cost of local sales and property taxes were on the minds of many members of the public.
And of those running for Council, the local tax rates seemed to be a concern for candidates.
Candidate Alex Martinez said there are some taxes that go to services that he sees as unambiguously necessary. Martinez pointed at water services, public safety and schools as examples, but said at the same time, local taxes have gotten higher and higher.
“As a commissioner on planning and zoning, I can see the taxes going up,” Martinez said. “And we talk about unaffordable housing -- we're going to be taxed out of existence if we're not really careful.”
Martinez added that for retirees who may be on a fixed income, increasing taxes can put a strain on them that can be hard to handle and the council needs to keep this in mind.
Candidate Austin Aslan acknowledged that local tax rates could go up after this election, but he was grateful for how welcoming Flagstaff has been when it comes to investing in the public sector.
“There’s a large number of requests for additional revenue this year, isn’t there, and I believe there will be a number of other requests coming onto the ballot in 2020,” Aslan said. “I’m grateful for the appetite Flagstaff has shown recently for [passing] these revenue requests and having [taxes go up] for a little bit.”
Adam Shimoni pointed out that when it comes to local property taxes, paying more isn’t always because the rate itself has gone up. It can also be caused by home prices rising, which directly relates to the problem of housing affordability. Shimoni reiterated that housing is one of his top concerns.
Issues of public safety, especially those surrounding the city’s first responders, were also of concern to candidates.
Regina Salas said one issue the city is facing is that of an understaffed police department. The city, she said, must find money to hire more officers as the department is overstretched.
Martinez said he had real concerns over the issue of unfunded pensions for first responders, adding that the pension issue has created a revolving door situation where officers don’t have confidence in a long-term career in the city.
Paul Deasy agreed with the sentiment and said the issue is not just affecting personnel but also how equipped the police department is.
“We have $108 million in unfunded pension liabilities right now. Because of that, the fire department and police are having to divert other resources from going towards equipment, gear and everything else,” Deasy said. He added the city also needs to work on the wages first responders receive.
“I was speaking to the firefighters union this morning. In the last 10 years, they have not received any merit-based raises, meanwhile their call volume has quadrupled,” Deasy said.
Candidate Dennis Lavin said in his experience as an accountant, and given the scope of the pension issue, he definitely foresees having to ask voters to approve an additional sales tax to raise the money in 2020. He also said the city and the council have to find better ways of listening to the needs of first responders.
Aslan, who has been endorsed by the local firefighters union, said he is worried the funding situation has led to a situation in which first responders may not have the necessary equipment for a growing city like Flagstaff. In particular, Aslan pointed to the growing number of taller buildings across the city and said ensuring the fire department has the equipment to combat fires in such buildings is of the utmost importance.
“That’s a disaster waiting to happen,” Aslan said. “So it’s not just about pensions and those monies for personnel, it’s also making sure they are resourced properly.”
In recent years, the city’s anti-camping ordinance has also gained more attention with some members of the public believing it criminalizes sleep. Last year, Council refrained from adjusting the law but the 9th Circuit appeals court earlier this year ruled homeless individuals cannot be punished for sleeping on public property if shelters are full.
And Deasy said, should the issue once again come before Council, he supports “decriminalizing sleep.”
“Right now if you park your car on the street and you’re not in it, you get a ticket,” Deasy said. “If you’re sleeping in it, it’s a misdemeanor offense. Why does the car have more rights than you as a person?”
But Salas disagreed and said the anti-camping ordinance was enacted for a reason. Those living in wooded areas around the city can cause wildfires, directly threatening the city’s watershed.
“Now how do we prevent homelessness?” Salas said. “First of all, we have to build up and strengthen the efforts of the nonprofits who provide shelter services. Second, I think as a city we should think about dedicating a campground facility where folks can camp.”
Shimoni agreed that there may be a risk of wildfire when the homeless camp in forested areas around the city and that the community needs to find a way to provide more support to Flagstaff Shelter Services. At the same time, Shimoni said he didn’t think a city-run campsite was a good idea and that he generally believed in decriminalizing sleeping on public property.
“We do not need to create a little ghetto for people,” Shimoni said, “They want to be where they want to be.”
Martinez said one of his concerns was how the city’s ordinance may be negatively effecting veterans.
Lavin said he didn’t have much knowledge on the problem, but hoped the construction on the veterans home being built on McMillain Mesa helps with the issue.