Monday’s city council meeting drew a full house, with eight members of the community addressing the council during the call to the public. Residents are expressing concerns about proposed revisions to the city code, specifically raising questions about changes outlined in Chapter 7.
Two new billboards along Interstate 10 that showcase Benson will soon have lights, making them more visible to travelers driving at night and, as part of the city’s effort to find a new city manager, the position’s salary range will be lower than what was suggested by the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, the organization the city has contracted with to recruit a new manager.
During the call to the public, Patrick Boyle, Chris Early, Paul Lotsoff, Jim Gray, J.T. Moffett, Kathy Suagee and Steve Sacco addressed the council, with five speaking out about the Chapter 7 code issue, while Gray urged the council to approve the lighting for the billboards and Cook spoke about the city manager salary range, while Lotsoff wants the city to provide council packets to media, something that was discontinued last month.
On the issue of Chapter 7, Benson resident Patrick Boyle took a philosophical approach about his concerns with the proposed code’s language. “Most of us try to improve our lives by working, buying a home and raising a family and then leaving our children with a better life through what we’ve accomplished. Whether a home is the poorest of conditions, or the richest of conditions, it represents our life. For the government to come along and try to take what we’ve worked so hard to accomplish, is not right. When the government becomes too involved in the lives of the community, we need to do something to abate that. This Chapter 7 criminalizes property owners in Benson, giving the city the ability to take what is ours if we’re not following the guidelines set in city code. I believe the government has completely lost respect for the rights of property owners in the name of a revenue stream.”
Moffett, a Benson resident and local business owner, approached the council in his usual hard-hitting style. “The Chapter 7 codes criminalize code violations,” he said. “We are supposed to make laws to protect us from criminals, not laws that make us criminals. We do not need these codes! What Benson needs most is to cut spending on management salaries. We need to ease the financial burden on the citizens, not pass new laws to burden them further and take more money from them…The new codes are all about power and money.”
Initially, a work session had been scheduled to discuss the city’s code update prior to Monday’s council meeting, but the session was canceled Monday by Mayor Toney King because of different concerns he had about its format. Specifically, King felt council members were not given adequate time to review Chapter 9, which was listed on the work session agenda, and he did not feel the community’s questions about the revisions should have to be presented to the city prior to the session, which was a provision of the work session.
Council members approved the billboard lighting, which will cost the city $75 a month for each billboard. Councilman Ron Brooks argued that both billboards mention Benson’s 24-hour Walmart, but nighttime travelers can’t see the advertisement, as the billboards don’t show up at night. “Not all Walmarts are open 24 hours, so it’s good for people to see that ours is,” Brooks said. “The purpose of the billboards is to draw people into Benson, and that includes people who are driving at night.”
King questioned whether the funds for the lighting are available in the city’s budgeted line item, with Finance Director Jim Cox assuring the council that the funds are available. The lighting measure passed with a unanimous vote.
The City Manager salary range was placed on the agenda as part of the city’s effort to advertise for a new manager to replace Glenn Nichols who will be retiring June 28. At the Feb. 11 council meeting, the council approved “utilizing the League of Arizona Cities and Towns for the city manager hiring process,” with the city entering into a Memorandum of Understanding with the League for its recruitment services. At that meeting Brooks questioned the League’s proposed salary range – which is between $90,000 and $135,000 – for a city the size of Benson. Brooks wanted the item placed on the agenda for discussion, stating that he felt the League’s recommended salary range was too high.
At Monday’s meeting, the cities of Pinetop, Snowflake, Eagar, Holbrook, Cavecreek, Litchfield Park and Bisbee were used in the comparison, to name a few.
Despite the fact that city manager salaries in other communities similar in population to Benson are higher than what the council finally agreed on, Councilman Al Sacco wants it set even lower, between $60,000 and $70,000. Sacco argued that, along with benefit packages and a vehicle, the city manager actually makes more than what appears on the surface. As part of the discussion, it was noted that, with his benefit package, Nichols makes about $140,000.
The council voted to lower the League’s recommended range, with the new salary set between $70,000 and $112,000. The measure passed with a 4-3 vote. Along with Brooks, councilmen Sacco and David Lambert voted against the measure. Lambert wants the city manager position filled by a city department head - at least on an interim basis - to save money. Brooks agrees with Lambert, stating that hiring someone internally as an interim manager may be worth considering for Benson, with Sacco wanting a much lower salary range for the position.
In her debut presentation before the city council, Megan Morino, who will be replacing Jim Cox as finance director, presented the city’s financial highlights. She noted that state tax collections are steady and the city’s year-to-date tax collections are improving. The city-owned golf course is doing well and is on a positive trend. Cash flow, which has been consistently tight in past reports, is finally beginning to loosen. While money is tight, the city remains financially sound.