By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Gilbert is seeing value in staying in the League of Arizona Cities and Towns even though Phoenix severed ties with the lobbying association.
Phoenix City Council in November overwhelmingly voted to leave after interim Mayor Thelda Williams called the voluntary association “ineffective.”
Losing its largest member, the now 90-member group includes the remaining Valley municipalities and those as far north as Page and as far south as Bisbee.
“We have no plans to leave the League at this time,” said Rene Guillen, the town’s intergovernmental relations director. “The town benefits from membership in the league in a number of ways.”
He added the town continually evaluates the value of its membership in the league, which a group of mayors formed in 1937 in the hope that by banding together, they could preserve local decision-making over local matters.
Gilbert has been a dues-paying member of the league likely since then. The annual dues for fiscal year 2019 is $97,000, according to Guillen.
In return for its taxpayer-funded dues, Gilbert receives the league’s help in understanding the impact of passed and proposed legislation and help in a coordinated strategy on issues, he said.
“Professionally, we work with the league when it comes to compliance with state law on elections, finances, human resources, pension, public safety and other areas,” Guillen said, adding:
“They help coordinate statewide conversations among cities to develop best practices and model ordinances. Legislatively, they provide added voices to Gilbert’s on issues impacting the town.”
The League of Cities engages with 90 legislators, the governor and state agencies on a level that could not be accomplished with current town staffing, Guillen said.
In just recent history, he added, the league’s collective lobbying efforts helped defeat legislation that would have prevented municipalities from collecting residential rental, construction sales and digital sales taxes.
It also helped get legislation passed that reduced unfunded liabilities in public safety pensions and provided additional transportation dollars through the Highway User Revenue Fund.
“Combined, that equates to millions of dollars in revenue preserved and protected for Gilbert resident,” he said.
Additionally, Town Council and the mayor hold valuable positions in the group.
Mayor Jenn Daniels is a member of its executive committee; Vice Mayor Brigette Peterson belongs to its transportation, infrastructure and public works policy committee; Councilman Scott Anderson is a member of its panel on neighborhoods, sustainability and quality of life; Councilman Eddie Cook is on the budget, finance and economic development policy committee.
“The deep involvement of our elected officials in the League helps make sure Gilbert’s interests are part of the discussion and impact the direction the League takes on a myriad of issues,” Guillen said.
The league is not Gilbert’s only paid lobbying group.
The town has a contract with Pivotal Policy Consulting for $36,000 for fiscal year 2019. Gilbert also is a dues-paying member of: the Maricopa Association of Governments, $47,295; Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, $100,117; and Arizona Municipal Power Users Association, $3,400.
League Executive Director Ken Strobeck said that although there have been grumblings from a couple of the Phoenix City Council members, its withdrawal was a surprise.
“It was unexpected because they have been an ongoing member since the founding of the League more than 80 years ago,” Strobeck said. “We’ve worked very closely with Phoenix’s intergovernmental staff and a lot of their officials. I would say it was unexpected.”
Although Phoenix was the largest paying member at $145,300, the league has no intention of raising dues for other members to compensate for the loss.
“We will, of course, miss their dues payment as part of the overall dues,” Strobeck said. “There will be no hikes as a result of their decision. We have reserves and we always try to come in under budget.”
Strobeck said he was taken aback by Phoenix officials’ comments.
“I read comments that we were ineffective and they were unhappy with our activities,” he said. “Rather, there are a number of bills that saved an enormous amount of taxpayer money for the city of Phoenix.”
“All of that resulted in significant savings for the city,” Strobeck said.
He added that the league solicited a great deal of input from Phoenix staff on what they wanted to see in bills at the Legislature.
Strobeck said he is hopeful Phoenix officials will reconsider re-joining the league, but at this time officials there have given no indication of returning.
Strobeck said the league will not make any changes in how it does its work with the largest member gone.
An annual survey of members show they are satisfied with the league, according to Strobeck.
“Over 90 percent say, ‘yes, you are doing a great job and things are going well,’” he said. “For a majority of cities and towns, they are pleased with what we do.”
He said most municipalities don’t have lobbyists but rather employ intergovernmental staffers who coordinate with the league.
“The reason we have a league is so we can leverage our effectiveness by not having every city hire their own lobbyist,” Strobeck said.
Asked if any other municipality ever withdrew from the league, Strobeck responded none in his 13-year tenure.
“We are still the only organization that has the interest of city and town governments as our highest priority,” he said. “We work to protect the taxpayers and we will continue to do that.”