The municipal bounds of Paradise Valley limited government

An overview of the landscape of the Town of Paradise Valley. (Independent Newsmedia/Terrance Thornton)

Any number of phrases could be used to describe the Town of Paradise Valley. Home, for some. Vacation, for others.

For local politicos, that definition might be: limited government.

Home to a handful of world-class resorts, the municipality draws thousands of visitors to its quaint, charming community every year. From the President of the United States to traveling sports teams and business owners, the attraction to stay in the Town of Paradise Valley has sustained the municipality for decades — allowing for residents to live free of property taxes.

The limited government utopia on the surface is a point of pride for the elected, and for those who came before them, but answering the question of “what is a limited government” yields different responses from different leaders.

As demand for residential units continues, the Town of Paradise Valley is awakening to its own limited government evolution. The town isn’t the only municipality growing; Maricopa County as a whole claimed the title of fastest annual population growth with a record 81,000 new residents from July 2015 to July 2016, according to the Census Bureau.

With the town’s growth is coming new problems — like building on difficult lots, or regulating the frequency of trash trucks through a new ordinance — the council has been navigating through, while seeking to keep its limited government philosophy in-tact.

Mentioned regularly amongst government leaders and town officials, maintaining a limited government could be considered the top priority for the Town of Paradise Valley.

“For me, I know I look through things and I have my own definition of limited government, that is the lens that I look through,” Paradise Valley Mayor Michael Collins said Oct. 25, at the onset of the governance discussion series underway at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive.

“Each of us have their own definition and position on what limited government means, so I thought it’d be useful to have that conversation. This is a good point in our governance journey to have that.”

A total of 13 “governance” topics have been devised, but the first six under review are:

  • Use of Consultants
  • Transparency
  • Cost Estimating
  • Defining Limited Government
  • Rules of Procedure; and,
  • Appointment Process.

Town council has been discussing each item for about one-hour per meeting thus far.

“Governance is more broadly defined as a set of rules, policies or processes that guide how the town conducts its business,” Paradise Valley Town Manager Kevin Burke explained in a Nov. 8 emailed response to questions. “As it should be, each term starts with what work needs to get done. But equally important to that discussion can be ‘how’ does that work get done.”

Kevin Burke

In the past two years town council has not only been crafting a bicycle and pedestrian plan and an answer to its trash-hauler options, but approving more housing and resort options. All of these applications and improvements have shaped the conversations for the governance topics — and specifically, limited government.

“The general idea is the town uses this term in many of its policy discussions but it means different things to different people,” Mr. Burke said. “Finding a common understanding could help in understanding each other’s perspective during policy debates.”

The biggest development to come through the council’s purview — a Ritz-Carlton branded resort that will include 94 villas, nearly 100 single-family homes, 53 townhomes and a retail center — has yet to open.

During the Oct. 25 study session, Mayor Collins expressed an observation made during a recent meeting with previous past mayors.

“Some former mayors did argue to me this morning, that ‘hey why does the town have an assistant town manager now?’ They see that as growth in government,” Mayor Collins explained of a recent promotion for employee Dawn Marie Buckland. “So if the workload for our town manager is so high we had to get an assistant town manager, isn’t that by definition a growing government?”

Councilwoman Julie Pace disagreed, illustrating the need for governments to reinvent themselves as the world changes.

“Those that served in the past had different issues that may not be the same as what we’re dealing with today,” she said. “They didn’t have cell phones, storm water wasn’t as bad and there was less housing.”

Councilwoman Pace says there’s a difference between promoting a good employee and adding five new employees, before reiterating the reality of the town’s growth.

“So you’re sitting with the town or Mayors or whoever, and people are saying ‘hey wait a minute, things are changing?’” she said. “So how many new housing and cluster density did we do? And, how many traffic congestions do we have? And how many people are we adding in all these condos that go in? The cluster of density at Mountain Shadows to the edge of town? Well that’s more people, that’s more services, that’s more responsibilities on a number of fronts.”

The Paradise Valley Town Council during a study session at Town Hall, 6401 E. Lincoln Drive. (photo by Melissa Fittro)

Crafting a definition

Throughout the Oct. 25 study session, council members discussed the town’s government philosophy — limited vs. non-limited.

“It’s a very difficult philosophy. For me, you know, less government, less regulation, less taxes, less money out of my pocket,” Mayor Collins said. “Depending on how you define government — ‘big G’ or ‘little g,’ I think it’s both — when I look at a lot of decisions made here in town, one would be hard pressed to say ‘yes, that fell into limited government philosophy.’”

Using anecdotal decisions that former councils have made — such as out-sourcing the fire department and hillside codes — the council bounced around different ideas of government.

Julie Pace

“We are not limited government when it comes to zoning, we’re super restrictive here, especially when it comes to hillside,” councilwoman Pace said. “But it was a choice, and it protects everybody, it protects scenic views for our resorts and we’re paying for all this open space with one house per acre how much more restrictive do you get with that? Because it protects open space for the quality of life.”

Paradise Valley Vice Mayor Jerry Bien-Willner says while the town could allow for drug stores and spas to open up in their town, they choose not to.

“I mean part of it is what we do, it’s not what we define it as. We define it every day by how we conduct ourselves,” he said. “Really the people who decide what limited government is, guys, what they want from our government are the voters, not us.”

Councilman Scott Moore said that if the council is going to start trying to define limited government, they should start with their established mission statement and General Plan — although no actual definition exists, town officials say.

By establishing one baseline definition of limited government would be useful for council members and staff members, the council contends.

“I think this is important,” Councilman Mark Stanton said. “This is a baseline from which we work from, you’re right, maybe I wouldn’t change my vote on certain things, but to have one understanding, one interpretation to say ‘OK, we can work with that,’ I think this is important.”

A view from beyond the dais

The Town of Paradise Valley fancies itself a limited governmental entity — but Mayor Collins wants it in writing, it appears.

On Thursday, Oct. 26, embedded within a larger governance-of-the-municipality discussion, Vice Mayor Bien-Willner read aloud a letter from Mayor Collins during a council meeting seeking to establish what some are calling a “litmus test” for all future decisions to be weighed by town officials.

Mayor Collins offers these five measures of what a limited government ought to be in his view:

  • Stay focused on public safety, land use infrastructure and quality of life of residents;
  • Run the town with the efficiencies of the private sector when possible;
  • Don’t seek solutions for problems not proven to exist;
  • Live within your means and a balanced budget; and
  • Stay out of residents’ wallets.

Mayor Collins says he believes a framework of limited government could be developed to better evaluate the issues that oftentimes befall Paradise Valley Town Council.

“The council is spending a lot of time considering a series of changes to the way in which the town operates. Under the banner of improving governance, a number of rules, procedures and policies are being evaluated and modified by this council,” he said in a Nov. 7 statement to the Independent.

“So before we journeyed too far down this windy road, I thought it important for us to discuss the concept of limited government, what it means and what it has meant in Paradise Valley over time. My hope was that we could establish a consensus set of principles as a framework for better decision making over the next 14 months during my final term as mayor and in particular for those decisions that affect how the town operates now and into the future.”

Michael Collins

Mayor Collins contends limited government means different things to different people — and the virtues of those values is in the eye of the beholder.

“Countless past and present elected leaders and staff have promoted limited government as an important and defining attribute of our town,” he said.

“In fact, we have it listed as one of six core town values. Yet each person you talk with has their own definition of limited government or idea of what it means to them. It is difficult for an organization to weigh policy issues through a limited government value system if as the governing body we can’t agree on what limited government principles we are trying to live by.”

Limited government is a belief system Mayor Collins says he is using to base his own thinking when making decisions on the local dais.

“Judging by how quickly this council disposed of any further talk on limited government during my absence from the Oct. 26 meeting, I don’t know how much impact my recommended principles will have on us moving forward,” he said.

“But I stand behind them, even if they will only be used to guide my own personal actions and decisions on policy matters facing the town during my next 14 months in office. Everyone has their own compass on limited government. Maybe a future town council will take another run at better defining or framing what we espouse to be a core value of the community but this town council has moved on.”

Vice Mayor Bien-Willner says limited government is defined by action.

“I believe that the town’s elected leaders, volunteers and staff have a very good understanding of what limited government means and how the residents we serve monitor and value this time-honored approach,” he said.

“In my opinion, ‘limited government’ is defined by our actions – and in particular the Council’s policy decisions, allocation of public funds, and priorities — more than any words.”

Jerry Bien-Willner

And, Vice Mayor Bien-Willner points out the idea of limited government is outlined in the municipality’s core principles.

“I have no doubt that a limited government framework has served the town exceptionally well since its inception,” he explained.

“It’s one of the values that makes our Town unique and special, and really gives the Town’s leaders pause in considering how the Town serves its residents and conducts itself. It also sets us apart from other communities and has helped define our Town, including our related values of independence and choice, our value of volunteerism, and our long-term financial success and viability.”

Paradise Valley Councilman Paul Dembow says the mayor’s effort is a good idea — but in practice it may prove to be impractical.

“It appears the mayor wants a litmus test that we can use to hold up to decide if government should take an action,” he said.

“I think that is, in the abstract a worthy discussion, however in application it is a pipe dream. I don’t know how to have a definition that is applicable to all scenarios. Invest biking trails? Go to a single trash hauler? What definition would we use to determine those?”

Echoing the leadership of those who came before him, Councilman Dembow contends the fewer government tentacles, the better.

“Mayor Horne said it best, ‘the least government, is the best government.’ Aside from this definition, Potter Stewart said something that rings true to me — about pornography but I apply it to my view of limited government — ‘I know it when I see it,’” he said.

Paul Dembow

However, Councilman Dembow explains property tax — and the subsequent lobbying for the creation of one — doesn’t speak to the limited government model.

“The mayor penned an article pushing for a property tax in Paradise Valley, ‘Paradise Valley needs a property tax — here’s why.’ My constituents do not want a property tax, this will lead to more government spending,” he said noting a former commentary that appeared in the Independent.

“Once a property tax is in place it never goes away! I think we can all agree a town without property tax run like ours is today, is better than what we’d have if we had a property tax.”

Paradise Valley Councilman Mark Stanton says the volunteerism at Town Hall is one example he thinks of when the tenets of limited government come to mind.

“The Town of Paradise Valley is unique in many ways, including the fundamental approach to volunteer leadership for the Town,” he said.

“Remarkably, our town has more volunteers than employees including all town boards and commissions, judges and the town council. Our town has worked to provide quality services to our residents in a cost effective and efficient way. That approach has kept our Town

Government small and focused on solving issues for the residents.”

A view of an entryway into the Town of Paradise Valley along Tatum Boulevard. (File photo)

A true evaluation of limited government?

As the Town of Paradise Valley explores the possibility of a single-trash hauler contract for resident recycle and rubbish needs, Mayor Collins points out a limited government litmus test could be developed.

“Our present discussion on the merits and drawbacks of a single-hauler trash contract is a perfect opportunity to test our individual value systems and beliefs of how the limited government model should be interpreted here in Paradise Valley,” he said in response to being asked if the ordinance pursuit is in-line with a limited government mantra.

“Understandably for some, the trash service discussion itself is a departure from what this council should be focused on and the idea of imposing a single-hauler solution contrary to limited government principles. Equally understandably for others, spending town council time working on a quality of life issue such as trash service is justifiable. And yet still others will judge what we do by the impact that it has on their wallet.”

Understanding or not, Mayor Collins says he believes the single-hauler trash contract is a worthy discussion for local government.

“For me, as I apply my own principles of limited government as a framework for evaluating the topic, I find it to be a worthy discussion to have and to resolve either way once and for all,” he said.

“But I include the quality of life of residents as one of the few limited areas of focus that government should have and so having a discussion on trash service is consistent with my own principles of limited government.”

Vice Mayor Bien-Willner agrees the development of a single-hauler trash contract could be a departure from the adopted free-market system.

“As many town residents have pointed out, a single trash hauler would effectively put the town in the trash business – a path that past leaders have repeatedly rejected — while eliminating the choice and competition currently offered,” he said in response to being asked if the contract is a departure from limited government.

Vice Mayor Bien-Willner also points out he believes town government has done a good job pursuing the limited government mantra.

“I believe that, at its core, the town remains true to a ‘limited government’ model, but there are often temptations presented to stray away from what has served the town so well — and the Town’s elected leaders must remain vigilant and disciplined,” he said.

“In short, limited government is a fundamental principle for this Town that must always remain a touchstone.”

While Councilman Dembow says he believes in the merits of a single-hauler trash service — and the cost savings that could come associated with one — he also says the Town of Paradise Valley is a unique animal.

“The mayor has pushed this forward as a ‘Quality of Life’ issue,” he said.

“I’m on the HOA board of my gated community. We had five trash haulers on our private streets and we negotiated for one hauler and have had one for over a decade. Our last negotiations lowered our rate for twice weekly trash and once weekly recycle to $192/year per lot or $16 per month. There have been only positives from this change for every member of our HOA. If we could do the same thing for the Town, it would make sense to consider.”

But local consternation and the complexity of such a contract are proving worrisome for the municipality, Councilman Dembow says.

“However, from what I’ve seen so far, this will be far different from the experience of my HOA. It will be a mixed bag of tricks,” he said.

“(In the current plan) my HOA would have a 60 percent increase on what our negotiated rates are today. I would not try such a ludicrous plan. Even if the plan looks good to most people, it would have to be something that would benefit 100 percent of the residents, which it would not as I see it.”

For Councilman Dembow the limited government model must allow the free-market enterprise to ebb and flow.

“The argument that trash trucks cost us money because they are so large and destroy our streets has not been quantified,” he said. “Using the moniker, ‘quality of life’ sounds great. It just won’t live up to it’s name when you have a waste hauler not giving you the service you’re used to at a price that is higher than what you were paying previously.”

Councilman Stanton says he knows that single-hauler trash contracts have been beneficial for similar municipal governments.

Mark Stanton

“Single-hauler trash contracts have been very successful for many municipalities,” he said.

“Development of that approach is a value judgment based on quality of life issues. It is important to look at best practices and evaluate what options and advantages there are to a single-hauler approach. That said, the answer will be in the quality of life advantages, economics and most importantly, public opinion and feedback on the issue.”

And, the idea of limited government is more of an aspiration rather than a standard operating procedure, Councilman Stanton contends.

“I believe government serves an important role, for public safety, resident services and protecting quality of life, but that role has its limitations. In the words of President Ronald Reagan, ‘man is not free unless government is limited,’” he explained.

“Our Town has followed a successful path to find solutions that do not increase the size of government, but use common sense and a residents-first approach to problem solving. As a volunteer for the Town, I am committed to continuing that path moving forward. At all levels of government, issues may seem best solved by spending money or adding resources to solve a problem. Although many municipalities have taken that course, Paradise Valley has remained steadfast in keeping limited government and managing within our resources. I believe that is the right course.”

Councilman Dembow echoes a similar sentiment.

“Limited government was what the founders of our country wanted and certainly the founders of Paradise Valley,” he said.
“Government, by nature, is the least efficient model of an organization, especially as it ages. Look at our federal government, the waste is epic! Our state government is bloated. Give a bureaucrat a job and they love keeping it. Less is more with government.”

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